Not My Mother’s Spaghetti

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The church in Ryssby, Sweden – where my grandmother, Anna Davis Carlson (Karlsson), grew up

Yes, my mother, born to parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden, fixed my brother and me spaghetti when we were growing up.  But I don’t remember having a jar of dried basil or dried oregano anywhere in our cupboard – or oregano and basil growing in our huge garden.  My mother’s spaghetti was pretty basic (but actually delicious).  You browned hamburger (as we called it then) and chopped green peppers and onions (no garlic – I never remember seeing a head of garlic in our kitchen), salted it all really, really well, added some canned tomatoes, and simmered it for a while.  And I’m guessing she browned the meat in lots of butter!  Surprisingly, we did always have a can of Kraft’s grated parmesan cheese on hand.  How fancy can you get!

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a 1960 Kraft ad

I adapted my mom’s recipe slightly and fixed it often over the years for our kids.

But after our two kids had grown up and moved away I decided that Asian noodles were way more “my” thing than pasta.  And so I quit cooking it.  Poor Andy.  He never shared my sentiment.  When – during the pandemic-filled March of 2020 – I saw the empty shelves at our local market where the pasta should have been, I realized that my eating habits aren’t in sync with the rest of the country’s.

And then that same week in March our daughter, Sara, called in a panic and said the grocery stores in San Francisco were also stripped bare of spaghetti and orecchiette and fettuccine and penne.  I offered to mail her some of our unused (and dated 2/05/2017) pasta.

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Brown Rice Lasagne Noodles – all that remained on a SF grocery shelf (thx, Joe, for the photo)

Clearly, I thought to myself, I have underestimated pasta and folks’ love of it – and I need to add recipes to the BigLittleMeals’ list!  So I decided to go to three very famous food writers (bloggers would be a misnomer; they’re way fancier than that!) and find out what some of their most popular pasta recipes are.  Then – much to Andy’s delight – we tested the pasta recipes and are reporting back.  In today’s Andy’s Corner Andy is puzzling over pasta!

For my food writers I chose Ina Garten (aka The BarefootContessa) and Melissa Clark and Alison Roman because all three are incredibly popular online.  And because they are from different generations and I thought their recipes and approach to cooking might reflect that somewhat.  I’ll admit that it’s odd that they’re all living in or near New York City.  Is that the hub of the U.S. food scene (as well as the coronavirus)?

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Ina Garten

Ina is just a little younger than I am.  Her cookbooks and writing seem to revolve around her life in the East Hamptons, her gorgeously set, formal dining table,  her perfectly manicured shrubs, and her husband Jeffrey, whom she met at the age of 15 and married at 20 (I still haven’t forgiven her for releasing a cookbook called Cooking for Jeffrey).  Her recipes are usually about as perfect as her life seems to be.  (A funny update: an April 1 Instagram video by Ina – which has “gone viral” – shows her fixing a g-normous Cosmopolitan and pouring it into a g-normous martini glass – all apparently for herself.  Plus, she looks shockingly normal – i.e., maybe a little weary?).

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Ina’s life


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Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark, a 1990 graduate of Barnard, is middle-aged. Her life appears to be a little messier and normal than Ina’s.  She’s divorced and remarried; she has a child still at home who requires her attention.  She seems unpretentious.  But, as with Ina, we know that if Melissa puts a recipe out there on the NYTimes, we can be pretty sure it’s going to work.  If you want to know more about her, here’s a nice article in The Columbia Magazine (Melissa received a Master’s degree in writing from Columbia).

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Alison Roman

Alison Roman is the millennial of this three-some.  She’s in her mid-thirties, single, living in a normal, modest-looking Brooklyn apartment with a teeny tiny kitchen.   Though she dropped out of UC Santa Cruz (same university our daughter graduated from) she’s gone on to be tremendously successful in the world of food (not to say our daughter isn’t also tremendously successful in the world of food! 🙂 ). One of Alison’s cookbooks is Dining In – the very name we use for our BigLittleMeals’ dinner parties (though our name came from the Vietnam-era military dinners, not from Alison’s cookbook).

The Cut – an online-magazine dedicated to “Style, Self, Culture, Power”- has called Roman “the domestic goddess of the apocalypse.”  Pretty impressive!  Her Twitter page shows she has 38,000 followers.  But, to be fair, Ina Garten has about 172,000 followers of her Tweets.

Yes, the pasta recipes from these three talented ladies are a far cry from my mother’s spaghetti.  Ina’s bolognese takes the basic ground beef and tomatoes recipe to a way fancier level, while keeping it all easy and quick to put together.  Melissa’s corn and pasta is probably not very Italian, but it works.  And when Alison caramelizes shallots and then dumps in some anchovies, the result….well, it has her Twitter followers going Tweet crazy!

I know you’re all dying to know which food writer’s pasta we loved most.  Andy picks Alison’s and I pick Melissa’s – but we both liked Ina’s too.  It’s a win win all the the way around.  Now if you can just find some pasta on your grocer’s shelves!

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Ina’s Weeknight Bolognese

On the Food Network Ina’s Bolognese received over 300 reviews and 5 (out of 5) stars.

Ina's Weeknight Bolognese

Note that Ina has you add 1 1/2 tsp of pepper – as well as 1 T salt to the browned meat.  I thought that seemed like a lot, but I had faith in Ina and put it in.  We thought the resulting sauce was perfectly seasoned, but you might want to add salt and pepper to taste.  Slightly adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe.

  • 2 T olive oil, plus extra to cook the pasta
  • 1 lb ground beef (or substitute ground pork or ground turkey)
  • 4 tsp minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
  • 1 T dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 c dry red wine, divided
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 2 T tomato paste
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 lb dried pasta, such as orecchiette or small shells
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 T dried basil leaves – or 1/4 c chopped fresh basil leaves lightly packed
  • 1/4 c heavy cream
  • 1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Heat 2 T of olive oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and cook, crumbling the meat with a wooden spoon, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the meat has lost its pink color and has started to brown. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes and cook for 1 more minute. Pour 1 cup of the wine into the skillet and stir to scrape up any browned bits. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper, stirring until combined. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a tablespoon of salt, a splash of oil, and the pasta, and cook according to the directions on the box.

While the pasta cooks, finish the sauce. Add the nutmeg, basil, cream, and the remaining 1/4 cup wine to the sauce and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened. When the pasta is cooked, drain and pour into a large serving bowl. Add the sauce and 1/2 cup Parmesan and toss well. Serve hot with Parmesan on the side.

Recipe brought to you by and Andy and Ann.


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Melissa’s Creamy Corn Pasta

This pasta recipe of Melissa’s has 5 out of 5 stars on the NYTimes with over 2800 ratings and 465 comments!

Melissa's Creamy Corn Pasta

Slightly adapted from Melissa Clark’s recipe.

  • 12 oz dry orecchiette or farfalle
  • 1 T olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 bunch scallions (about 8), trimmed and thinly sliced (keep the whites and greens separate)
  • 2 c corn kernels – fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper, more for serving
  • 3 T unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese, more to taste
  • 1/3 c torn basil or mint, more for garnish
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste
  •  Fresh lemon juice, as needed

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until 1 minute shy of al dente, according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large sauté pan over medium heat; add scallion whites and a pinch of salt and cook until soft, 3 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and all but 1/4 cup corn; simmer until corn is heated through and almost tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, transfer to a blender, and purée mixture until smooth, adding a little extra water if needed to get a thick but pourable texture.

Heat the same skillet over high heat. Add butter and let melt. Add reserved 1/4 cup corn and cook until tender, 1 to 2 minutes. (It’s O.K. if the butter browns; that deepens the flavor.) Add the corn purée and cook for 30 seconds to heat and combine the flavors.

Reduce heat to medium. Add pasta and half the reserved pasta cooking water, tossing to coat. Cook for 1 minute, then add a little more of the pasta cooking water if the mixture seems too thick. Stir in 1/4 cup of the scallion greens, the Parmesan, the herbs, the red pepper flakes, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Sprinkle with fresh lemon juice to taste. Transfer to warm pasta bowls and garnish with more scallions, herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and black pepper.

Recipe brought to you by and Andy and Ann.
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Caramelized Shallot Pasta from Alison

With 5 (out of 5) stars in the NYTimes and over 3500 ratings and 564 comments, this recipe from Alison is popular!  Here’s a video of her making the Caramelized Shallot Pasta recipe.

Alison's Caramelized Shallot Pasta

Slightly adapted from Alison Roman’s recipe.

  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 6 large shallots, very thinly sliced (I had about 2 c of sliced shallots)
  • 5 garlic cloves, 4 thinly sliced, 1 minced
  •  Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp red-pepper flakes, plus more to taste
  • 1 (2-ounce) can anchovy fillets (about 12), drained
  • 1 6 oz can of tomato paste 
  • 10 oz pasta – we like spaghetti
  • 1 c parsley, leaves and tender stems, finely chopped

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium high. Add shallots and thinly sliced garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots have become totally softened and caramelized with golden-brown fried edges, 10 to 15 minutes.

Add red-pepper flakes and anchovies. (No need to chop the anchovies; they will dissolve on their own.) Stir to melt the anchovies into the shallots, about 2 minutes.

Add tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly to prevent any scorching, until the tomato paste has started to cook in the oil a bit, caramelizing at the edges and going from bright red to a deeper brick red color, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.  You are going to use only 1/2 of this mixture – so transfer the other half to a resealable container. (These leftovers can be used in another batch of pasta or smeared onto roasted vegetables, spooned over fried eggs or spread underneath crispy chicken thighs.  (Note from Ann: You might need to add a bit of water to get the sauce to the consistency you need.  And less is better than more.  It’s an intense sauce.)

Cook pasta according to package instructions in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente.  Drain, reserving 1 c of pasta water.

Add the pasta to the shallot mixture and the 1 cup of pasta water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring to coat each piece of pasta, using a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape up any bits on the bottom, until pasta is thick and sauce has reduced – 3 to 5 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine parsley and minced garlic clove, and season with salt and pepper. Divide pasta among bowls, or transfer to one large serving bowl, and top with parsley mixture and a bit more red-pepper flakes, if you like.

Recipe brought to you by and Andy and Ann.



  1. David Ewing says:

    Ann describes her mother’s spaghetti recipe–identical to my mother’s, who was another Colorado Swede. I’m sure Ann’s mom sometimes substituted beans for the spaghetti and called the resulting dish “chilli,” too. But probably neither of them ever fixed threaded weenie spaghetti, recipes for which are not necessary but are all over the Internet. I never heard of any such thing as basse cuisine, but I suppose this could be a paradigm case for that. Just cut some weenies into half-inch pieces, thread a couple onto several dry spaghetti noodles and then cook them in boiling water. For extra fun, give your kids a dish of already cooked spaghetti noodles and weenies and ask them to re-create the dish.


    • theRaggedys says:

      Andy here: “Basse cuisine” is new to me also. Looked it up – evidently it’s the opposite of “haute cuisine,” a term I do know. We were just playing some of John Prine’s music (may he rest in peace) and I couldn’t help thinking about how appropriate were the lyrics in his recording with Iris Dement: “No we’re not the jet set, We’re the old Chevrolet set.” Your suggestion for weenie spaghetti certainly is from the old Chevrolet set. Thanks once again for your insights and wit.


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