It was already past seven one night this fall when my high schooler and I finally turned away from our screens to figure out dinner. Slumped on the kitchen stools, we were too physically tired to sit up and too mentally exhausted to imagine eating anything other than fettuccine Alfredo.
“It’s a meal where I don’t have to think,” they said. “It’s just easy and creamy.”
As I swiped open a delivery app, I convinced myself that we should have a weeknight treat. Then I saw how much the price had jumped.
Raised in a home where we could buy name-brand cereal only if it was on sale (ideally buy one, get one free), I couldn’t bring myself to tap “checkout.” I had the ingredients and calculated that it would be less than $10 to make two servings, a small fraction of what delivery would have cost. Also, fettuccine Alfredo doesn’t travel well; it would have congealed into a pasta brick by the time it arrived.
So I made dinner — not for the love of cooking or with a spark of mindful motivation, but because it would be cheaper and taste better.
In 20 minutes — most of that time is waiting for water to boil — tender noodles can end up coated with Alfredo sauce. Eaten hot off the stove, the creamy pasta is all comfort yet feels light, less fleece robe and more silk pajamas. (The longer it sits off the heat, the heavier it gets.)
Sometimes that easy cheesiness is all you crave. The one-note flavor is the reason Alfredo is so soothing, but some days, you want a full chord. It doesn’t take any more time to swirl chile crisp and wilt spinach into the sauce, but they add heat and freshness that play well together. The greens break up the monotony of noodles and make fettuccine Alfredo feel more like a complete one-dish dinner.
In this recipe, chile crisp, a spicy, oniony Chinese condiment that you can buy or make, intensifies when sizzled in butter before cream tempers its heat. Tossing in Parmesan heightens its savory umami, and swirling it all with al dente pasta ties together the seemingly disparate flavors into an immensely satisfying meatless meal.
Yes, those additions are far from the original, which you can still try at Il Vero Alfredo in Rome. In the restaurant’s offering — Le Vere “Maestosissime” Fettuccine all’Alfredo on the menu — freshly made noodles are tossed with local butter and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. But the terms “Alfredo” and “Alfredo sauce” have come to apply to countless forms of creamy, cheesy white sauce. That can be interpreted as the demise of the dish or its rise to the culinary canon (or as an exemplar of organic branding).
It is what it is. Alfredo works great with a range of additions, and it turned out to be the ideal pasta canvas for the firecracker crunch of chile crisp. This astoundingly simple meal — it doesn’t even require any chopping — tastes as complex as anything you’d order from a restaurant. And it proves that you don’t necessarily need a jolt of inspiration to make something that tastes inspired. You just have to cook.