My husband and I have a funny routine when we make dinner. We’re usually so exhausted after work that we don’t go shopping, so we challenge each other to make a meal from whatever is in the house. The result of one very inexpensive “improv” dinner years ago was a bowl of “caramelized onions and pasta.” That recipe wound up in my very first cookbook called Little Meals: A great new way to eat and cook (Villard), and I affectionately named it the $2 Little Meal. The cost of the entire dish was no more than 2 bucks and relied exclusively on things you would have in your kitchen: onions, salt, sugar, balsamic vinegar and pasta, and a smattering of thyme and basil leaves (that I had dried from the summer window box.) Freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, always in my fridge, is actually optional here. At the time, I made the dish with farfalle (bowties) because, as “house rules” dictated, it was all we had. But it is quite good with any pasta shape, short or long. Years later, the recipe morphed into a dish I created for my monthly column in Bon Appetit where roasted peppers and fennel seeds added a bit of complexity and sophistication. You can find a version of that recipe by “googling” Caramelized Onion and Roasted Pepper Pasta. But here, and now, I will share the original, humble dish. A bottle of $2 Buck Chuck wine (now more expensive) would be just the thing to drink!
For more ideas on “improv cooking” you might want to look at Arthur’s Schwartz’s gem of a book called “What To Cook When You Think There’s Nothing in the House to Eat! A book that truly lives up to its title.
The $2 Little Meal (adapted from Little Meals)
This can be served as a first course for four or a main course for two. It is also a nice side dish alongside a simple roast.
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1-1/2 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons dried basil leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
8 to 12 ounces dried pasta
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add sliced onions and cook over high heat until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes. If they begin to burn a little, that’s okay. Lower heat and add the sugar, basil, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often, until onions are uniformly caramel-colored. Add water and vinegar and cover pan. Simmer while pasta is cooking. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until just tender; drain well and shake dry. Divide pasta among 2 to 4 warm bowls. Top with cheese, if desired. Serves 2 to 4