Cooking off the Cuff: A Makeshift Pasta Fresca

This probably sounds silly coming from a food blogger, but the more I write about food, the more I realize that recipes are not the be all and end all of cooking. In fact, some of my most successful kitchen moments as of late were born from my pantry rather than a cookbook. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to follow flavors instead of just directions, and I can say with confidence that the process has made me feel a touch more chef-y. Still, I know I have a long way to go. I’d love to be one of those cooks who can rebel against my need for order and dance between ingredients and gadgets like a carefree kid on a bicycle, but it’s hard. And slow. And sometimes I burn things.

While working late nights at Vox magazine during college, I discovered a love for the pasta fresca at Noodles and Co. a block away from the office, and it’s one of the few fast food-ish dishes that I still regularly crave (that and those gigantic Chipotle burritos. Mmm. And ooph). I decided to try my own version based on the flavors and ingredients I remembered — red onion, spinach and balsamic vinegar — and after a bit of trial and error, I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s the perfect pasta for a weeknight meal because it’s quick to throw together, takes relatively little prep work, and you can easily bend the recipe to match your tastes or whatever you have in the kitchen. Or if you’re feeling really adventurous, toss the recipe altogether and take to it Chopped style. The secret ingredients are — red onion, spinach and balsamic vinegar. Go!


Pasta Fresca

• 13.5 ounces of whole-wheat spaghetti
• 1 sweet red onion, cut into ½-inch slices
• ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 8 ounces fresh baby spinach
• 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• ¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
• ¼ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
• freshly grated Parmesan

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat; when the oil is hot, add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt, and sauté until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a few healthy pinches of salt and the pasta, and then cook to al dente according to package instructions. Drain pasta, and return it to the pot. (Ideally, the recipe should be timed so the pasta finishes cooking just as the spinach is added to the onions.)

Now back to the onions: Once the onions have started softening and becoming translucent, add the garlic, crushed red pepper and black pepper. Sauté for another minute, until the garlic turns golden. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Give everything a good toss so the onions get coated with the olive oil/vinegar mixture. Turn off the heat, and begin adding the spinach little by little, and toss with the onions. Continue tossing until the spinach just begins to cook down, about 1 minute.

Add the spinach, onions and dressing to the pasta, and gently mix everything together. Top with freshly grated Parmesan.

Serves 4 (3 if you’re super hungry)


Have you ever tried recreating restaurant favorites at home? What did you make? And how did it go? I’d love to hear about it!



  1. says

    I completely agree! I don’t follow recipe when I cook – I simply gather as much information about a dish as I can, how it’s supposed to be and forge ahead myself. Don’t you find yourself a little more free when you can just go and cook whatever you have? It’s also frugal since it uses up the leftovers :D. This looks fresh and delicious.

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