I’ve been having one of those weeks where every evening I’m still scrambling to get things done when I’m supposed to be cooking dinner. I really like to cook and usually enjoy long hours spent in the kitchen, chopping and mincing and rolling and mixing. But lately, there just hasn’t been time for all that. I imagine a lot of people have been feeling the same time crunch as we all recover from the holiday break, late summer vacations and the return to school.
On those days when dinner needs to be on the table 15 minutes after I walk in the door, there’s a pretty good chance that I’m going to reach for pasta. By using some leftovers or a few pantry items, I can have a restaurant-quality meal done in the time it takes to boil the water and simmer some spaghetti. It can be different and delicious every time, and I never have to resort to using pasta sauce from a jar.
“I might toss a poached egg with pasta, steamed spinach and good olive oil, and shower it with freshly grated nutmeg and cheese.”
All you have to have on hand is good pasta. There are so many varieties available these days, it’s not hard to find a healthy version, even if you’re avoiding gluten. From there, you can keep your prep extra-easy by simply topping your pasta with a pat of butter or a bit of olive oil and garlic. Add to that a grind of pepper and some grated cheese, and you’ll find yourself with a classic Roman cacio e pepe.
If you want to take it a step further, look around at what you have languishing in the refrigerator, freezer, pantry, spice rack or herb garden. While you entertain your creative side, you might even get to use up some leftovers. Your evening meal could end up being topped with some pesto, chopped sausage, rescued kale, nuts, olives, beans, chili flakes, minced onion, parsley or basil.
Depending on your choice of pasta (and your portion size!), you’re probably getting a good dose of carbohydrates in your meal, so you might want to think in terms of rounding that out with some protein, fats and other nutrients. Haven’t had your quota of vegetables for the day? Instead of serving a salad on the side, you might consider actually making them part of your entrée, as with this pasta and veggies. Or improvise a pasta toss, and you can use whatever you happen to have on hand.
Tamar Adler suggests boiling vegetables first and then using the same water to boil pasta. While that’s cooking, smash the vegetables, add in some cheese and pasta water, then mix in the pasta. Voilà! Or dress your pasta with some cherry tomatoes and basil. If you want a more classic red sauce, you can whip one up in the time that it takes to cook some spaghetti using fresh tomatoes (there are a number of ways to quickly skin a tomato, but this is my favorite).
If you need a little more protein in your day, consider topping your pasta with anchovies, sardines or some eggs (either poached or fried). Use up your leftover meatloaf, ham or bacon by turning it into a yummy pasta sauce. Or pull a few pieces of seafood out of the freezer, cook it up while the pasta boils, and serve with some butter and lemon.
And hang on for this last one, because I’ve been saving the best idea for last. My current favorite pasta dish is this amazingly quick avocado pasta. It is such an easy prep, and the result is rich and creamy, with a nice little citrus kick!
The more I think about it, the more I’m overwhelmed by inspiration and the possibilities. We’ll never have to eat pasta prepared the same way twice! And with the possible exception of the pasta, none of it need come out of a box.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.