pasta

Last Meal.

Mr. Magpie and I often revisit the slightly macabre query: “What would be your last meal?” His answer remains the same, year after year: blue crabs and cold beer, enjoyed outside with family and friends. Mine has evolved over time but it is nearly always pasta. My current choice would be Amatriciana. This is the page our well-loved, tomato-splattered, dog-eared copy of Sauces and Shapes opens to on its own, so frequent has Mr. Magpie made it since we first discovered it a few years ago. He has annotations in the margins and the page is itself wrinkled with pasta water and grease. Let these tactile indicators of its beloved positioning in Mr. Magpie’s incredibly diverse and ambitious monthly meal planning speak for themselves. This past week alone, he has prepared 3-day-brined pork chops served with Garden & Gun’s outrageously delicious, peanut-streusel-dotted sweet potato casserole (yes, you need the sorghum syrup, but you can find it on Amazon) and steamed, buttered green beans; homemade sheet pan pizza startlingly similar to Prince Street’s finest using Kenji Lopez’s recipe; Zuni-style roast chicken with our favorite Boulud carrots and roasted small potatoes, slightly smashed and garnished with salsa verde; chicken salad (from aforementioned roast chicken leftovers) accessorized with tarragon and the tenderest butter lettuce from our garden; and the most satisfying Italian Wedding Soup with fregola, escarole, and lamb meatballs. Suffice to say, Mr. Magpie is an absolute genius in the kitchen and I eat like a queen. He insists on varying the protein (I’m sure we’re due for seafood next), cuisine, style, and we rarely repeat — with the exception of a handful of pastas that he makes over and over and over, at my urgent request.

Amatriciana is one of those. (Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and spicy sausage, penne with puttanesca sauce, and linguine and clams come in close behind.). The way Oretta Zanini de Vita describes this dish in her cookbook is perfect: “It seems incredible for such an easy, humble sauce, but this is one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read: fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom. You have to use spaghetti or bucatini, they say–nor is it that simple, since there are spaghetti-only and bucatini-only factions. No cheese but pecorino is permitted. And woe betide you if you use pancetta in place of guanciale.” Later: “Like many rustic, simple sauces that have found immortality on trattoria menus throughout Italy, this dish is only as good as its ingredients…The result is a red sauce studded with bits of lightly fried pork, but you don’t want it too red. The pasta and guanciale should be coated with a thin mantle of sauce, not hidden. Don’t let the gloppy, oversauced trattoria version be your model. The cheese is sharp and salty, but again, don’t use too much.” There are many paragraphs circling in on these details and the provenance of the dish and why you must only use pecorino romano in this dish, and the way Oretta runs through all of these details — the finnicky commitment to tradition, the ideal serving style, makes my mouth water.

On an experiential level, a big plate of bucatini dressed in Amatriciana sauce is the ultimate comfort food. It is delightfully salty and the bucatini affords such an incredible mouthfeel — chewy and satisfying. There is nothing like a big forkful of slightly porky, slightly tomato-centric bucatini, offset by the tang and salt of the cheese. It is deeply satisfying. If you don’t consider what you’re doing, you’re bound to eat an entire plate and still want a few extra bites right out of the serving dish. A plate of this pasta would be the centerpiece of my final meal, but I’d probably also bribe Mr. Magpie into making sauteed broccoli rabe dressed with chili, garlic, and anchovy to serve alongside it, which is in my mind the perfect bitter foil to the fatty condimento (and rabe is my favorite vegetable), and I’d eat it all at the coffee table of our living room, sitting on the floor next to him, with an easy-to-drink red wine like Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, drunk out of a juice glass — the way I like it.

*Note that photo at top is NOT accurate to the recipe, i.e., it shows parm and may in fact be carbonara or something, but still…evocative!

Anyhow, below, our beloved Amatriciana recipe, with Mr. Magpie’s annotations:

Amatriciana a la Oretta, a la Mr. Magpie

This sauce is used on flour and water shapes [i.e., not egg pasta] — spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but rigatoni, cassarecce, or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapreti/pici do nicely too. [Ed. note: do yourself a favor and invest in some really good dried pasta for this dish. It makes a world of difference. The sauce clings to the pasta much better, and you can just taste the quality. Eataly carries a lot of our favorite brands and ships anywhere. While you’re there, pick up some great olive oil — we’ve tried most of the styles Eataly carries, and all are delicious; I think “experts” believe EVOO from Liguria in Italy is the best, and here is one such bottle — and San Marzano canned tomatoes. Mr. Magpie places a few huge orders for these staples each year, either from Eataly or Gustiamo. These high-quality pantry staples really make a difference in this simple recipe in particular! Meanwhile, the guanciale makes this dish! It is worth seeking out.If you are in NYC, you can find guanciale at Dickson’s in Chelsea Market, at Eataly in Flatiron, and occasionally at Hudson and Charles on the Upper West Side, conveniently a few doors down from Barney Greengrass, and therefore worth a trip on its own (stock up on guanciale for dinner and then lox and bagels for the next morning). If you are in the D.C. area, we have been getting our guanciale from Organic Butcher in McLean, which in fact delivers to Bethesda. I would venture to guess that Butcher & Larder in Chicago would carry it, too — Gepperths and Paulina were also favorite butchers of ours when we lived there, but they seem more entrenched in the classic German butcher tradition, so not sure they’d carry it.]

For the condimento:

4 oz guanciale, cut into thin strips

2-3 tablespoons EVOO

1 small onion, chopped

1 whole 14 oz can whole peeled tomatoes

1-2 small pieces dried chile

salt [we use only Diamond Kosher salt]

To make the dish:

1 pound pasta

70 grams grated pecorino

Instructions:

Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Taste a piece to assess how salty it is. Then, when it jut begins to crisp, add the chopped onion and saute gently until transparent. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the gunaciale). Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.

Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in an 8 quart pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.

Drain the pasta, reserving some of the starchy pasta water in a Pyrex measuring cup. Place pasta back in cooking pot off the heat. Coat with a little pasta water and cheese, adding cheese in increments of about 1/3 cup, tossing constantly with tongs. You want to see the cheese and water start to cling to the bucatini to create a kind of cheesy saucey coating. Then add sauce to the pasta pot and continue tossing constantly with tongs, adding additional cheese/pasta water as needed to create perfectly coated strands.

Serve immediately on plates (not bowls), grating additional pecorino on top.

What about you? What would be your final meal?

Post-Scripts.

+Funny how some dishes weave themselves into the fiber of memory.

+Writing about Paulina Meat Market above reminded me of this lovely story from a small Polish restauranteur in Chicago.

+If you’re thinking ahead to Thanksgiving, I shared all of our favorite Thanksgiving recipes in this post from a few years back (scroll down).

+Ideas for a date night at home.

+Are you an adventurous eater?

+Notes on hosting girlfriends at home — including some delicious menu ideas.

+Some of our all-time favorite recipes — the scarce handful Mr. Magpie will make over and over again.

+Some of our favorite cookbooks!

+Things you must have in your kitchen.

Shopping Break.

+You know I love overalls. This pair would be so adorable with this blouse beneath.

+This sweater is somehow marked down to $41 in the ivory color in an XS…snagged.

+These earrings are in my cart.

+Beauty guru Courtney Grow swears by this pommade for the perfect slicked-back bun. I trust her implicitly. This reminds me that I have on a few occasions in the past few weeks let my hair air dry overnight and then curled it into loose, beachy waves using a 1″ barrel iron. I let my hair cool for a few secs, run my fingers through it, and then set with my favorite texturing spray, also by Ouai. It yields the perfect “cool girl” waves IMO.

+When I do wear my hair slicked back in a low bun, for some reason I always want to wear gold hoops (?) and have been sporting these inexpensive ones, whose quality impresses me!

+This utilitarian-chic radio and bluetooth player is marked down to almost 70% off. I might buy it as a stocking stuffer for Mr. Magpie for when he’s gardening / grilling in the area below our deck and the music doesn’t quite reach him!

+Lake Pajamas just restocked its maternity collection and I immediately sent pairs to two friends who delivered recently! Such a luxe and lovely gift for a new mama. So often the gifts are (understandably) all about baby — nice to spoil mama too.

+These mini Kankens are perfect for little ones when traveling. Micro has one and I keep his books, toys, stuffed animals, etc in it so it’s easy for him to find his stuff! They come in such great colors, too.

+Just look at this chic pendant light — love!

+Adore these placemats from such an unlikely source!

+Another cute fall blouse for a little one at a great price, paired with a cord jumper at a great price. More darling (affordable) finds along these lines here.

+Drawn to these slightly masculine penny loafers.

+Inexpensive velvet hairbows for littles.

+Drawn to these “layering pants” in ponte. Sort of like a notch above leggings, designed to fit into boots and under sweaters, like this fisherman style shown on the site.

+A perfect fair isle sweater to pair with denim like this.

+Honestly, I might order this bag for myself.

+This floral jacket ($20!) for a little lady is too cute!

+Margot Tenenbaum vibes.

+I don’t know how else to say it — these coupes are sexy?

+I love the look of these under-$100 black waterproof suede boots — like, if you need to look pulled together but also trudge through Chicago snow on your way to work?

+Love the color of these cord overalls for a baby.

+A refined take on the shacket.

+These dramatic coats from Saks Potts have been all the rage the last few years. You can get the look for less with this, or aim somewhere in the middle with a Shrimps coat, which is definitely on my lust list…!

22 Comments

  1. Oooh Jen, what an absolutely *delicious* post. My mouth is watering right now. A well-prepared plate of pasta truly is perfection in my mind too.

    I always struggle with the “last meal” question. Like can we have multiple courses within this meal? Haha. For me it would have to include cacio e pepe, specifically using fresh black pepper linguine (with the black pepper IN the pasta dough) that we get from this local purveyor.

    I had the same question as Claire about the logistics of cooking more elaborately — thank you for the detailed breakdown of your evening routine! I love how you and Mr. Magpie share a grown-up dinner — that is so special, especially in this season of life where young children’s needs often take precedence over everything else. It’s like having an at-home date night every night. 🙂

    1. Mmm cacio e pepe is a solid choice. Absolutely delicious with a glass of nebbiolo — the sommelier at I Sodi in NYC told me “nebbiolo and cacio e pepe are like peanut butter and jelly — meant to go together.” Yum…now my mouth is watering!

      xx

  2. Thank you Jen for your detailed breakdown in your response as logistics like that are very much appreciated! And I love the idea you view it as your time with your husband and that others do too. weeknight date nights at home – how special! I think that’s the direction my husband and I will go in as well and eat as a family when he’s older (he’s only 1 and hasn’t quite developed good independent play skills so cook prep just does not happen when it’s just me and him alone ha!)

    1. Hi Courtney! I agree, it was really interesting and encouraging to hear different moms share how they’ve approached this and why. That age is tough for getting things done around the house!

      xx

  3. Ahh, this has been my go-to winter dinner party pasta for ages and I never knew the name until now! I also use a lot of sundries tomato paste, which really loves fatty pork. To chime into the thread on dining with littles (and hi, fellow Claire!): we eat together every night and almost every night is not without some moments of chaos, especially when I cook as I do insist on recipes whereas my husband will settle for ravioli or a 1950s-style meat/starch/veg. But I’m willing to sacrifice lingering over dinner in the name of fewer dishes 😉 Jenny Rosenstratch has some great fam-friendly quick recipes (we love her Vietnamese tofu salad on rice noodles, black bean quesadillas, and skillet lasagne), as does Alison Roman (is it okay to still love her recipes?)—her slow/low salmon and ~the stew~ are go-tos that both my sons like. But all that said, I don’t think one way is better than the other — you get to enjoy an adult meal as it should be, which sounds like a smart way to start winding down the day and a time to enjoy each other’s company without constant small fry interruptions. As you noted, when the kids are a little older, it’ll be easier to all eat together.
    Oh, and last meal is probably steak tartare and Belgian fries, or a couple dozen cherry stones. Good company non-negotiable in either case!

    1. Hi Claire! Oo fries in a final meal is a good call…and totally agree on the “non-negotiable” good company note.

      I loved your notes about eating with children. Thanks for the grace you always offer us in your comments. I also took down Rosenstratch’s name — I’m not familiar with her! — but mainly, I can’t believe your children will eat that stew! Wow! Not that it’s not delicious, just — all the textures and ingredients! Wow! We are very much in a “don’t let the different foods touch” phase. Yikes! I have miles to go…

      xx

    2. They love chickpeas! And rice. So their portions are like 70% rice, 25% chickpeas, 5% sauce (I tend to go for meals where the ratios are adjustable). HOWEVER, cleaning up basmati rice may be the death of my knees and tumeric definitely is a natural food dye. I look forward to the day when I can assign cleanup duties to the messmakers…

    3. Ah, smart! Agree on the chaos of cleaning rice. Impossible to get up since it sticks and smushes to the ground…wah! A good job for our airedale 🙂

      xx

  4. Immediately forwarding this post to my husband so he too can make me this meal! Two additional comments –

    1. Sort of specific, but if any of your readers happen to be in Raleigh, Alimentari in the Transfer Co. Food Hall has guanciale and amazing fresh pasta, in addition to lots of other goodies!

    2. Re: eating separately from your children, we did that for the first 6 years we were parents and I miss it dearly. We especially enjoyed it on weekends – an opportunity to have at-home date nights where we cooked a new recipe together and made fun cocktails. With the spread of our children’s ages (7, 4, newborn), I’m not sure we will be able to bring it back for the youngest, which makes me a little wistful. For the mamas who are still able to make it work, please enjoy those after-bedtime adult dinners a little extra for me – they won’t last forever!

    1. Yay!! Let me know how it turns out! I think you’ll be delightfully satisfied 🙂

      Thanks for the tip on the Raleigh Food Hall, and also for the graciousness of your note about eating with/without children! This makes me feel better, and also makes me want to lean in a little more to enjoying this phase! Thank you for the perspective.

      xx

  5. Ah, amatriciana will always have a fond place in my heart. It’s the dish I had the first time I went to a fancy restaurant completely by myself and had a meal (at the amazing Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles). I’ve made it several times (always bucatini for me), but it isn’t quite the same, ha.

    1. Oo la la, how lovely! What a great memory of enjoying your own company with incredible food!

      xx

  6. It would definitely be blue crabs and corn on the cob for me! But this pasta sounds delish, thanks for sharing!

  7. This all sounds divine!

    I have a logistical question for you. With little children in the mix, when/how does elaborate cooking occur? I enjoy cooking but I currently filter all recipes by how long they take–anything that cannot be prepped entirely early in the day or done within 30 (ideally 15!) minutes doesn’t seem to work at this stage of family life. Perhaps this is because we eat early and all together? Perhaps my little ones should be better at entertaining themselves while I’m in the kitchen?? Ha! Would love any advice.

    1. Claire I have this exact same question!! I was asking my husband just this morning how people do it, especially to also eat together as a family! Jen, any advice you can give on this front would be also appreciated by me. Thank you!

    2. I have three little ones, ages 5, 4 & 2, and we eat together nearly every night. I cook about 5-6 times a week and usually make 2 or 3 of those meals more “elaborate”. I personally really enjoy cooking and really enjoy food so in order for me to do that I engage my children and have them help or have them sit at the counter and watch me and listen to music or I simply just make them play together and hope for the best. I often either have to break up a scuffle or stop what I am doing and get juice or fix a snack but I think they all see and acknowledge I am making dinner for us as a family and now its routine. The 5 year old also really likes to help now wherever she can so I try to encourage her to help me.

    3. Hi Molly! You are #goals! This is what I aspire to at dinnertime. My mom always served all of us dinner as a family and I think it was a beautiful tradition. I have a very strong memory of my mom cooking and all of us squabbling around — and yet we all respected that she was working to prepare something for us and so we tried not to bother her.

      To answer Courtney and Claire before, though, Mr. Magpie and I eat later, after the children are in bed. We talk constantly about when/how we should transition to eating as an entire family but right now, this is what’s working for us, for several reasons, some logistical (to your point, Claire, with both of us working full-time, eating these elaborate meals would be challenging if we were trying to also get kids to bed by 7) and others more related to carving out time to spend as a couple every night, fully enjoying these labor-intensive meals Mr. Magpie makes. We do sit with the children while they eat the dinner every night as a family, and their meals are much simpler — chicken, pasta, simply prepared vegetables, rice, fish sticks, etc. If we are eating leftovers, we also try to eat with them. But usually our schedule runs like this: 5 pm, nanny leaves, we all come downstairs (sometimes Mr. Magpie a little later since he has a team and meetings and a less flexible schedule!) and either go out to scoot/play in the street with neighbors or have some play time in the family room. (Duplos, man!). I am inevitably cleaning up the kitchen/family room, sorting mail, putting away mini’s discarded shoes and socks and school apparatus, and then I start making dinner for the children, which is usually something simple, as noted above, but I also do try to repurpose elements of my meals with Mr. Magpie in their cuisine, i.e., I’ll cut up roast chicken or steak or fish from our meals for them. They are picky, though, and things like anchovy-dressed rabe and sweet potato casserole would go untouched for sure. I’m always in agony over this — my mother always insisted we all eat the same thing and try whatever was on our plates, which did not always work, and there were many nights of us dropping peas in our milk or hiding liver (!) in our napkins. Then I’ve heard from some nutritionists that it’s important to put 1-2 things your child LIKES on the plate when introducing something new, so there’s that, which makes me feel better about the fact that I might give them miso-coated cod, but alongside buttered noodles and edamame or those Dr. Prager veggie bites, which I know they will eat. On top of all of this, there’s the angst about food waste — Mr. Magpie buys the best quality ingredients possible and it is brutal to watch the food go in the garbage or be mixed in sneakily with applesauce or just not be eaten. Ahh!

      Anyhow, Mr. Magpie is usually doing some meal prep for our later meal during this hour, too, but it’s all pretty relaxed — we’re popping in and out of playing with the kids, tidying, catching up, cooking. Then we all sit down to the table together at 6 pm, almost invariably on the dot. Often Mr. Magpie and I enjoy a cocktail/happy hour glass of wine and nibble while they’re eating. Once the children are done, Mr. Magpie returns to cooking, the children wreak havoc around the family room, and we often have a “dance party” before we head upstairs to bed at 6:50-ish. (Our nanny bathes them earlier in the day, just after mini comes home from school. They are often already in their pajamas from this.). We brush teeth, use toilet, change into jammies if not already in them, prepare rooms for bedtime, and then most nights Mr. Magpie and I split off, each taking one of the children to put to bed. When Mr. Magpie has a particularly complex dinner or is grilling something and needs to keep close to the fire, I’ll put them down myself. Then I go down and walk Tilly and call my mom on the walk. After that, I clean the entire first floor — put away all toys, children’s dinner gear, etc., dim the lights, and dial in on helping Mr. Magpie with dinner or just bother him with conversation 🙂 We usually eat around 8. It really is such a delicious reward. I have felt pangs of guilt about not eating the same meal together as a family for a long while, but I also feel that this ritual has been wonderful for my relationship with Mr. Magpie. Adult time, just for us! To savor his great cooking! At some point in the next few years, I think we’ll transition to eating altogether, but here we are now! Imperfect but works for us. Rereading my notes here I realize how much I am straining to apologize or legitimize this decision, and that suggests to me I need to work on making peace with this!

      xxx

    4. Hey Jen,

      Thank you for your thorough reply. As I was sitting with my family last night for our (12 minute, loud, early, basic, chaotic!) dinner, I thought of you and think you are very smart for having a civilized dinner with just your husband after the little ones are in bed!

      If you’re feeling guilt/doubt about not doing family dinners, I recommend economist Emily Oster’s newest book. I don’t know if you read Expecting Better or Cribsheet about pregnancy or young babies (a deep dive into questions like “is sushi really going to harm me while pregnant?” or “are breastfed babies really different from formula fed ones?” etc etc. Most of the time her answer is likely not.), but her latest book debunks many theories that have been in the cultural bloodstream for a long time about young family life (the utmost importance of family dinner being one of them). It will probably make you feel a lot better because it’s clear that you get a lot of quality time with your kids as it is. 🙂

    5. Hi Claire! Thank you so much for the generous note, and for following up here. I know people love Oster — I think I need to check out this newest book. It sounds interesting!

      xx

    6. Thanks for the reminder about Oster, I didn’t realize she had other books and just ordered Cribsheet! My cousin is an OBGYN, and mom of 2 young children, and recommended Expecting Better to me. Changes your mindset, and I think reduces some of the anxiety, about all the “rules” surrounding pregnancy.

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