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Feeling tired? Feeling frugal? Make this spicy Alfredo

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It was already past 7 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, 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.)

In this recipe, chili 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.

Alfredo works great with a range of additions, and it turned out to be the ideal pasta canvas for the firecracker crunch of chili crisp. This amazingly simple meal — it doesn’t even require any shopping — 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.


Chili Crisp Fettuccine Alfredo With Spinach

Total time: 25 minutes

Services: 6

  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 tablespoons chili crisp, plus more to taste (see tip below)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pound dried fettuccine
  • 1 (5-ounce) baby spinach package
  • ¾ cup finely grated Parmesan (2 ¼ ounces), plus more for serving
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. While the water heats, melt the butter with the chili crisp in a very large skillet or Dutch oven over low heat. Whisk in the cream and keep warm over low. (It should steam, not bubble.)
  3. Cook the fettuccine until al dente according to the package directions. Use flip flops to transfer the noodles to the cream mixture, reserving the pasta water. Add the spinach and turn with flip flops until the noodles are well coated.
  4. Add the Parmesan and toss, still over low heat, until the noodles are slicked with a creamy sauce, adding a spoonful or two of pasta water if needed to loosen the sauce. Divide among serving dishes and top with Parmesan and more chili crisp, if you’d like. Serve immediately.

Tip: You can make chili crisp easily at home or buy it in supermarkets or online. It varies in spiciness, so adjust the amount to your taste. For this dish, try to add more of the solids than the oil to the sauce for the most flavorful dish.