When I lost my restaurant job last March and ended up camping out at my childhood home for what turned out to be months, my dad instituted a very reasonable house rule: My brother, who was home from college, and I would each take on dinner duty one night a week.
At the restaurant, every dinner meant family meal, the industry term for the quick meal shared before the start of service. Now in quarantine limbo, I was thrust into a new but decidedly familiar kind of family meal: dinner with my actual family every night, cooked by my parents, brother, or me.
My dinner rotation day (usually Friday, because I wanted to believe weekends still existed) became a built-in opportunity to experiment with ingredients. Sometimes I felt a bit more elaborate (like the time I recreated the stunning carrot eclair I’d had at a wine bar in Montreal), but mostly I stuck with simple, satisfying dishes that could be made largely by digging around the fridge. Read: a lot of pasta, of the creamy variety. Like so many others, I was craving easy comfort, not to mention an excuse to pop open a bottle of wine.
After a lovely run with miso cream pasta, I found myself gravitating toward another pantry staple: gochujang, the iconic Korean red chile paste commonly used in stir-fries and sauces. I found that caramelizing tomato paste and gochujang together brought out a savory, layered heat that became a flavorful base for foundational pasta sauce ingredients: chicken broth, heavy cream, and Parmesan. The bright, creamy red sauce reminds me a bit of vodka sauce, sans vodka, and its depth of spice goes beyond a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. The best part? All the ingredients can live on the shelf or in the fridge for a while, allowing you to skip yet another trip to the grocery store (you’re welcome).
Even though I’ve once again made my parents empty nesters by moving back to New York, I still make versions of this tomato-gochujang cream pasta for old friends, new connections, and one-off catering orders. It’s a dish that translates well, and it has added meaning for me because it was born out of the nights my family and I sat around the dinner table in the months of quarantine, our dispersed lives fortuitously brought together again. When everything seemed out of sorts and fraught with unknowns, one thing I could count on was the daily routine of family meal at 7 p.m. This creamy, spicy pasta reminds me that for all the anxieties in the world, I can still cook my way to comfort.
Tomato-Gochujang Cream Pasta
Serves 3 to 4
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, minced
⅓ cup tomato paste
2-3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red chile paste), depending on your spice preference
¾ cup heavy cream
¾ cup chicken broth (not low-sodium)
½ to ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, depending on how much cheese you like
8 ounces dry rigatoni, or pasta shape of choice
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the cherry tomatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle the tomatoes with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast the tomatoes for 20 to 25 minutes, until they soften and begin to burst.
Step 2: While the tomatoes are roasting, prepare the sauce. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat and add the minced garlic. Cook for 1 minute, stirring frequently, until fragrant. Add the tomato paste and gochujang to the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook the mixture for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste and gochujang caramelize. They will begin to brown and stick to the bottom of the pot in places, so reduce the heat if they begin to burn.
Step 3: Add the heavy cream and chicken broth and bring the sauce to a simmer. Continue simmering, stirring frequently, until the sauce begins to thicken and the tomato paste and gochujang are fully dissolved, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the Parmesan and several generous cranks of freshly ground black pepper. Season the sauce with salt to taste and a couple drizzles of honey, if desired (I find that the sweetness of honey provides a welcome foil to the spice).
Step 4: Continue to reduce the sauce until it thickens, about 5 minutes, then gently stir in the roasted tomatoes.
Step 5: In a pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta according to package instructions. When the pasta is almost finished cooking, you can add a splash of pasta water to the sauce if a thinner sauce is desired.
Step 6: Drain the pasta, then toss it in the warm sauce and serve immediately with a few more cranks of black pepper.
Dina Avila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning