Is there anyone who does not know that a bowl of pasta is the quickest, easiest and possibly cheapest meal to put on the table when you are feeding the hungry -
whether one or a few dozen? And that you can put it together with whatever you have - even just some garlic and chill, if that's it? The only essentials are olive oil and the pasta itself (plus maybe some butter and parmesan) - after that you can wing it with whatever is in the fridge or on the shelf.
Any time spent in Italy teaches you that pasta - like pizza dough - is just a base for an endless variety of simple but delicious possibilities. Some unused zucchini, tomatoes, peppers or mushrooms? A bit of red or white onion? Strips of baked or Parma ham, Italian sausage or crisp bacon? A jar or can of tuna or anchovies in olive oil and you have a feast.
Spaghetti with anchovies was our family's traditional Christmas Eve supper - for my first generation Italian mother it was easy, quick, tasty and fitted in with decorating the tree before midnight mass. And once anything becomes a tradition, it acquires a unique, iconic character of its own. Spaghetti with tuna was the recipe I sent off with my sons to university - the version with a can of tomatoes so they ate some vegetables.
But any old night when I haven't had time to think it is pasta for supper, and the usual routine is something like this:
NOTE: possibly the best pasta book to have at hand for moments of panic is the "River Cafe Pocket Books Pasta & Ravioli" by Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers. 100 of the best pasta recipes from the restaurant, divided into convenient groups - with a raw sauce, vegetable sauce, fish sauce, cheese sauce, etc.
Chop some red or white onion (or spring onions or shallots) and a large garlic clove and soften in a little olive oil over low to medium heat. Add some chopped cooked ham (or bacon) and leave on a very low heat to warm. Bring a large (depending on how many you are feeding) pan of water to a full, rolling boil and add whatever pasta you have chosen. Many cookbooks suggest 100 grams per person; I find that is too much and use more like 75grams (150grams for 2).
When it is cooked to your taste (soft, but with a little bite) drain (keeping a little of the pasta water to loosen the sauce if needed) and add to the pan of onions and ham. Add a little butter if you like (I do), salt and freshly ground pepper, some freshly ground parmesan - and I like chopped fresh parsley too - and stir. Put in a bowl and add more parmesan to your taste.
Other nights it might be mushrooms or sliced leeks, with ham or bacon or on their own - cooked red or yellow peppers are delicious (here you can add a bit of fresh goats cheese, if you like it), as are any of the summer squashes, alone or with bits of tomato. A classic Southern Italian combination is fresh ricotta with zucchini (see Arthur Schwartz' "The Southern Italian Table").
With canned tuna or anchovies the plan is much the same
Soften some chopped garlic in the olive oil drained from the can and then add the anchovies or tuna and cook gently and briefly. Add minced parsley and a lump of butter if you like (again, I do) and maybe a squeeze of lemon but no parmesan here, however - it is never used with fish in Italy. Note: you can use water packed tuna if you prefer, well drained, but you will need a little olive oil. Best of all, but expensive, is the olive oil packed tuna from Italy. A 5 ounce can will do for 2 (leftovers are perfect cold the next day).