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Brilliantly basic: Delicious Italian-inspired dinners with 3 ingredients or less

Here’s what to make when you’re in empty-the-fridge mode.

IT’S TIME TO simplify your cooking. Some of the most flavoursome dishes out there are the ones with the minimum of ingredients.

A really streamlined dish allows every ingredient to sing – and it also makes your own life a lot easier. Fewer ingredients equals less hassle.

When it comes to recipes that taste great while using the bare minimum of ingredients, I don’t know anyone who does it better than the Italians, famous for satisfying meals that don’t involve a lot of effort.

Staples like pasta and risotto have no end of combinations you could come up with.

Often a little bit of ingenuity and a few store cupboard essentials are all you really need. But I do realise that hunger and a lack of inspiration don’t make a winning mealtime combo, so I’ve done the legwork for you. 

Below is a selection of tried-and-tested Italian-inspired recipes that can be whipped up using only three components, but that still feel fancy.

The basics

Every dish here, even when it’s not specified will benefit from a sprinkle of grated parmesan or fresh chopped green herbs to finish, but equally, work well without. And I’m assuming you will have some good olive oil, black pepper, butter and dried chilli flakes in the kitchen already. I’ve written the pasta recipes with two servings in mind, suggesting 75g to 120g of pasta per person depending on hunger levels and who you are feeding. Simply halve, or double, the amounts for more or fewer mouths.

The key to these recipes, if you can even call them that, is to follow the instructions loosely, substitute at will (especially when it comes to different sizes and shapes of pasta) and trust your instincts. You will end up with something delicious.

1. Caprese salad

A Caprese is easiest to make well in summer when Irish tomatoes taste most sweet and juicy. This world-famous Italian salad is a divine combination of cool mozzarella, sweet torn basil leaves and fresh tomatoes, bundled together in a bowl or arranged nicely on a plate. Using the best ingredients you can here is key, with a drizzle of good quality olive oil and some flaky sea salt to finish. If you want to bulk things up, adding steamed green beans, spinach and grilled chicken will turn this salad into a meal to feed a crowd.

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2. Spicy sausage pasta

This is in no way authentically Italian, but it’s super-quick, and results in a satisfying and filling dinner. I like to use a chunky pasta like penne or rigatoni, and then you’ll need some sausages (one to two per person, ideally pork sausages with something herby added), tomato passata and dried chilli flakes. Allow 1 to 2 per person.

Slit the sausages along their length, remove the meat from the skin and then break into small equal chunks. Add the pieces to a frying pan with a little oil and brown on all sides. Add about 100g tomato passata, and a quarter to half a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes, depending on how spicy you like it. Mix well and reduce to cook on a low-ish heat for up to 10 minutes or so. Meanwhile, get your pasta cooked, about 150g – 200g. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan with your sausage and tomato sauce and mix well. Garnish with parmesan or herbs if you have them and serve immediately. 

3. Cacio e pepe

Adding an official-sounding name is a surefire way to make a recipe appear more elaborate than it is, cacio e pepe being the perfect example. This traditional Italian pasta dish translates to ‘cheese and pepper’ – and that’s pretty much all you need. Use spaghetti, some sharp Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper.

To start, cook 150g-200g spaghetti al dente. Melt 50g butter in a pan, remove from the heat, add 75g grated cheese and grind in lots of black pepper. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain it – keeping a little of the pasta water in there – and add the spaghetti to the butter and cheese. Toss well, coat the spaghetti with the sauce and serve.

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4. Super-simple risotto

I would like to dispel any rumours that risotto is fussy or hard to make. It’s just slow cooked rice. Okay, there are no real shortcuts and there’s a good bit of stirring involved, but the ingredients are breathtakingly simple to gather together: rice, stock and some parmesan. It’s essential that you use risotto rice – arborio, if possible – because the grains are short and stubby and absorb liquid without becoming gluey. And then you’ll want 250-300ml hot stock, ready and waiting with a ladle on the hob beside your risotto pot.

In a sturdy pot melt 2 tablespoons of butter, then add 200g rice and stir to coat the rice in butter for about a minute, keeping it moving. Start to add your stock, a ladle at a time, watching and stirring until the stock is almost absorbed and repeat until all the stock is all in and the rice is cooked, about 15 minutes. Take off the heat, grate a generous amount of parmesan, stir to combine and then pop the lid on and leave it to rest for five minutes. You can add all manner of ingredients to risotto: baby spinach added in last minute is great, or pan-fry some mushrooms to add on top.

5. Blue cheese and spinach gnocchi

This recipe offers a warming, comforting option for dinner or lunch, and it’s as simple as assembling a sandwich. You’ll need 250g pre-packaged gnocchi, 100g blue cheese, 100g baby spinach and some nice olive oil. Get your gnocchi on to cook according to the packet, it usually takes no more than a few minutes. Drain your gnocchi and add it straight back into the still-warm pan. Crumble your blue cheese in, add a drizzle of good olive oil and stir to combine. Add the spinach and mix again. Serve piled in bowls with a good seasoning of black pepper.

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6. Butter and herb tagliatelle

The partnering of fragrant sage (or parsley, thyme or other green herbs) and melted butter is heavenly and enough to transform any dish. And the ‘sauce’ is quicker to prepare than the pasta.

Start by cooking your pasta, about 150g tagliatelle. Meanwhile, in a small frying pan melt 2 tablespoons of butter on a low to medium heat. Add the fresh herbs, a small bunch should be plenty and cook until the butter starts to turn brown and the leaves get a little wrinkly. You do not want the butter to smoke or the leaves to burn. Take it off the heat. When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving a little water. Then add it to your frying pan of butter and sage. Put it back on the heat briefly to warm through. Add a little pasta water if needed. Add 50-75g grated parmesan and stir to combine. Season with black pepper and serve.

More: 10 simple cooking tricks every grown-up should master>

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