A Top Chef Shares Her #1 (and Often Overlooked) Pasta Hack
While we love nothing more than dining out at a five-star restaurant (and getting the high-end treatment), it's simply not possible to eat that way every night. But how do you bring that elevated flavour and luxury dining experience back home? The answer is simple: quality ingredients. And the good news is that they don't have to be expensive—just ask top chef Missy Robbins. After a career of more than 20 years as an executive chef in professional kitchens, Robbins finally embraced the joy of cooking for herself at the age of 42. She documents this personal journey (and self-discovery) through food in her new book, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner… Life!
"I came up with this book before Lilia (my Italian restaurant in Brooklyn) even opened," says Robbins. "I was cooking a lot at home during my time off, and these are the recipes that represent what I was cooking with friends and when I was traveling. It was a natural progression for me to write this book. I wanted to tell the story of this finite period of time in my life." The experience proved to be life-changing for Robbins. "I've learned that just like in cooking, I need balance in my life to stay healthy in mind and body," she adds. "I think it keeps me more focused and has made me a better leader in general because I am happier."
Ahead the head chef shares her secret to creating healthy meals at home, including her foolproof pasta hack, her favorite grocery store pasta brand, and two exclusive recipes from her new book—one that requires zero cooking.
Her #1 Cooking Hack
"Your cooking water is the most important ingredient in making great pasta. You want the water to be heavily salted, and as the pasta cooks, some of its natural starches will leach into the water. These starches along with the salty water will add body and salinity to your overall pasta dish."
Her Favorite Grocery Store Pasta Brand
"I love De Cecco. It has a good texture with consistent quality."
Her Tip for Making Healthy Meals With Zero Time
"Stay organised, and clean as you go. My go-to dish is always some sort of fish lightly braised in tomato sauce with chickpeas and broccoli rabe."
Her Must-Know Recipe for Those Who Never Cook
"A perfectly roasted chicken. Everyone should have one in their repertoire."
Ahead Robbins shares two exclusive recipes from her new book so you can whip up her top fettucini and no-cook cherry tomato sauce tonight.
"In this dish, I use both garlic scapes and garlic bulbs. Garlic scapes are the stems and unopened flowers of a garlic plant and can be found during a very short window at the start of summer in New York City farmers markets. They're rather unusual looking—coiled, green, and long—so it's understandable that most people don't know how to use them. You can use scapes in many of the same ways you would use garlic cloves. Scapes offer a delicate, sweeter garlic flavour, while garlic cloves are more pungent. In this dish, I sauté both the scapes and cloves to achieve a balance and depth of garlic flavour. Adding the scapes at the end keeps them crunchy and bright and builds textural dimension in the dish. Here they're combined with zucchini, which is a great sponge for soaking up the flavours in a sauce."
4 small zucchini, julienned
0.5 kg pound fettuccine
3 tbsp. olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp. crushed red chili flakes, plus more for garnish
1 bunch garlic scapes, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
4 sprigs mint, leaves only, torn
Freshly cracked black pepper
With a mandolin adjusted to a thick setting and fit with a medium julienne tool, slice the zucchini, avoiding the seedy core. Be sure to cut only the green meaty part, stopping on each side before you get to the seeds. Reserve the seedy core of the zucchini for another use.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and season generously with salt. Place the pasta in the water, and cook until al dente, about seven to eight minutes (two to three minutes if using fresh pasta).
As the pasta cooks, warm the olive oil in a large sauté pan over low heat. Add the garlic, and sweat until fragrant but without colour, about one minute. Stir in the chili flakes.
Use tongs to transfer the pasta to the sauté pan. Add 1 cup pasta water, the garlic scapes, and zucchini. Toss over low heat for about three to five minutes, until the fettuccine has absorbed the sauce and the zucchini has softened slightly. Add the cheese, and toss once more. If needed, add more pasta water to loosen the pasta.
Stir in the lemon juice and zest. Taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt if desired. To serve, evenly divide the pasta among four bowls. Top each portion with bread crumbs, cheese, mint, cracked black pepper, and extra chili flakes.
"When I buy cherry tomatoes at the market during the summer, I usually don't make it home without eating most of them. This sauce is a delicious way to integrate them, or any kind of sweet cherry tomato, into a quick, seasonal meal. The preparation is simple: tomatoes are salted to release their juices, and then they're infused with loads of dynamic flavour from the addition of pungent, fresh herbs and citrus zests. For an irresistible snack, skip the pasta, and serve the sauce over a thick slab of mozzarella with a hunk of crusty bread on the side."
3 pints cherry tomatoes, preferably Sun Gold
2 tbsp. kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1⁄2 orange
1 1/2 tbsp. crushed red chili flakes
1/2 cup olive oil
2 sprigs basil, leaves only, torn
3 sprigs marjoram, leaves only
3 sprigs mint, leaves only, torn
Halve the tomatoes, and place them in a large mixing bowl. Add the salt, gently toss, and then let sit for one minute. Add the garlic, citrus zest, chili flakes, and olive oil, and stir gently to combine. Set aside to marinate for 20 to 30 minutes.
Let the sauce sit at room temperature until ready to use. Add the basil, marjoram, and mint right before cooking the pasta (if using) so they stay fresh but you still have time to add flavour. The heat of the pasta will warm the sauce.