Oh shit, dinner is still A Thing. It exists. Disaster. This is you, creeping incrementally homeward in the transportation gridlock of your locale and mode of transit, flop-sweaty and wild-eyed like John Lithgow on the airplane, doing a frantic mental inventory of the nigh-barren refrigerator waiting for you and the sad combinations of "food" that might be assembled from its contents. Ketchup and ... ketchup and baking soda. Ketchup and fat-free Greek yogurt and the bag of celery I dropped in the bottom drawer like nine months ago. It's probably still OK, right? Maybe? Ketchup and baking soda and yogurt ... casserole? Ketchup and baking soda and yogurt casserole, and the slam of a door, and the screeching of tires, and being alone again, forever, probably.
Face it: You are going to have to stop by a grocery store. Agony. This is when you must make Quick Improvised Pasta, something that can be cranked out in the time it takes to boil a pot of water and cook some noodles in it. The trick here is to walk out of the store with like three or four things: pasta, and some good-tasting, easy-to-cook things with which to toss it.
If you're going to pull this off, those other things will need to be pretty damn tasty. So, grab some prosciutto, some sharp-ass Pecorino cheese, and a couple of leeks. Yes, dammit, leeks. Leeks are good! No time to argue! It's either this or Happy Meals and creating an online dating profile.
That's what I thought. Let's do it.
First things first. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil on the stovetop. Eventually you're going to cook a pound of dried pasta in it. About that.
You probably have your favorite pasta shape, and you're of course free to use it, unless it is alphabet noodles, in which case you are free to get a different favorite pasta shape and use that. Long, thin pastas that you twirl around a fork are fine, except angel hair, which you'll have to toss for approximately 10 years to get everything distributed through it. This sort of dish is an unorthodox use for tubular pasta shapes, but if you can track down an enormous variation of rigatoni called paccheri (ribbed or not), that's a surprisingly good choice: the other ingredients will hide inside the tubes in diverse configurations, adding some fun variability to the whole experience. Also, that's a 12-minute-or-so pasta (meaning it takes around that long to cook), which will give you a nice comfy window of time to get everything else ready while it cooks.
("Everything else." It's like two other things. Point is, you'll have some breathing room in case you're a friggin' klutz.)
While the water heats up, prepare some leeks for cooking. Two big leeks. Wash 'em, hack off any rooty brown shit at the bottom of 'em, bisect 'em lengthwise, lay 'em down on their flat sides on a cutting board, and slice 'em crosswise into half-rings maybe a half-centimeter thick, starting at the white end, and stopping just before you get to the fibrous dark-green upper part of the leaves. If you want to dump these half-rings into a colander and shake them under some cold running water for another few seconds, that'll dislodge any remaining grit or dirt. Or you can just take your chances on eating some dirt, I mean, that's cool, too; lots of people eat dirt. Some of them are even not totally insane!
Now, sharpen your knife, because slicing prosciutto is fucking annoying, and slice some prosciutto. What, maybe, like, a half-pound of it? Sure. That seems OK. Hopefully you were able to acquire some already thinly-sliced prosciutto; if so, roll the slices up into a little prosciutto cigar, and cross-section this cigar as thinly as you can manage without hating my guts. Yummmmm. Prosciutto. Oh man. Don't eat it yet.
And ... that's really it for prep work. Eventually, you're going to need some finely grated Pecorino cheese; if you need to grate it yourself, grate it now. In any case, at some point, your water will come to a boil; don't drop the pasta into it just yet. First, start the sliced leeks sweating over low-ish heat in a big-ass pan with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. The leeks will need a good, solid 15 minutes of sweating time, with the occasional stir; if you're using paccheri pasta as recommended above because you're a bold adventurer and/or a docile sap with the willpower of a Kleenex, this means that you can drop the pasta into the water three minutes from now. If you're using some other variety of pasta because you couldn't find paccheri and/or just haaaave to express yourself through your food, man, this means that you will need to do your own damn rudimentary math to determine when to drop it into the water.
A note on cooking leeks. Leeks are onions, basically. You can think of them as huge, mild, sweet, hideous mutant versions of scallions. The trick, though, is that they behave much more sensitively than many other members of the Allium genus when you cook them: If you try to sauté them over medium or medium-high heat like you would, say, a white onion, they'll char and taste bad. So, go easy on them. Keep the heat low, move the leeks around with a wooden spoon every couple of minutes so the stuff on the bottom doesn't get too hot, and be patient. They'll reward you with a mild sweetness and pretty pale green color that you simply can't get from other oniony plantlife.
Dump the pasta in the water whenever your advanced non-linear math says it's time to do that; set a timer. When the timer says the pasta has about, oh, two minutes left to go, toss the sliced prosciutto in the pan with the leeks. That's "toss" meaning both "add the prosciutto" and also "lift and toss and combine everything with a pair of tongs or big spoons or collectible replica lightsabers or whatever." You don't need to cook the prosciutto, so much as you want it to get coated with the pan's hot liquid, so that it too will heat up and its aroma will cause your pants-legs to roll up and down and up and down as if possessed.
Aaaaand there's the timer. Scoop out and set aside a mug of the starchy, salty pasta water; drain the pasta; toss the pasta and a splash of the pasta water in the pan with the leeks and prosciutto; toss and toss and toss. Add several grinds of fresh black pepper; toss and toss and toss. After a couple minutes of tossing, everything should be pretty well distributed, and there should be no pasta water pooling at the bottom of the pan, because it has coated and/or been absorbed by the pasta.
Move all this good-smelling food to a big serving platter. Drizzle it with some fruity extra-virgin olive oil; sprinkle it generously with some sharper-than-hell grated Pecorino cheese. Serve it to people you love, and whom you'd like to love you back.
Cold beer is good with your pasta; so is white wine. A nice bright salad with some tart acidity in the dressing will complement it nicely. Stab a couple o' those big-ass paccheri sons of bitches (or, ugh, scoop up some of your friggin' elbow noodles, ya big stubborn jerk) with a fork and chow down. A neat little spectrum of flavor, from the gentle sweetness of the leeks through the salty, porky punch of the prosciutto to the sharp, nutty Pecorino and ever-so-slightly acrid spiciness of the black pepper. Hey, this is fun! And it took like 17 minutes to make, and has like four things in it. No one will know, or guess, or wonder at all, how narrowly they avoided McNuggets.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.