Monday, February 15, 2010

Make it Work Monday: Dinner in a Hurry

More often than I like to admit, I come in from the day with a growling stomach and not much time between getting something decent and my mouth and just shoving in whatever is lying around. When I was single, this translated into cereal for dinner, and no one was the wiser, but now I have a husband who asks things like, "What do we have to eat?" and expects some sort of meal type answer. Cheese and crackers can cut it as snack foods, but he likes meals. The truth is that I like meals, too, and it's probably better for me that I now have external motivation to make and eat them. But the problem of time (not to mention energy or lack thereof) still exists. What to do? Frozen pizza? Mac and cheese from a box? While both of those are options I have used when necessary, if I have just a bit more energy than it takes to preheat the oven and open the pizza box, I like to make something that is a little more satisfying.

Enter the pasta dinner. Of course I could tell you to cook some pasta, add a jar of sauce, and be done with it, but in the time it takes to cook the pasta, you can do something far more impressive that doesn't take a lot of effort. Your base is a pound of pasta, any pasta, just pick a pasta!, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and chopped onion. Your variables are as numberless as the stars, or at least as numberless as what you can get from the grocery store, the farmer's market, or your own freezer. Because this meal offers so many possible variations, you can eat it once a week and probably not get tired of it too quickly. I put pasta on my grocery list every week and choose a different variety each time. Other things I keep in my pantry or fridge to keep my options for this dish open are frozen spinach, diced tomatoes, cheese (any variety, as long as it's not an American single individually wrapped in plastic, or, heaven help us, Velveeta), onions, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and whatever vegetables are fresh and in season.

To start, put your pot of water on to boil, and while you are waiting for that to happen, heat enough oil to just barely coat the bottom of the pan in a medium skillet. Chop the onion and put it in; for us, half of a medium onion is usually a good amount, and I put the rest in a container in the fridge for later use. At some point your water will begin boiling, whether that's now or in a few minutes, just keep an eye on it so that you can toss your pasta in when it's ready. Your pasta won't take much attention to cook, so direct your attention to what you'd like to put in the skillet with your onion. I generally add a couple more vegetables. If I am using something frozen, such as spinach (a favorite!), put it in at the same time as your onion. If it's thawed or canned, such as roasted red peppers or diced tomatoes, you can wait until the onions are mostly done before you put it in. Add salt, pepper, and garlic to taste. If you've got fresh garlic and you're willing to peel and mince it, good for you! If you're lazy like me, garlic powder works marvelously. You can also throw in some chili flakes if you'd like a nice kick. Stir occasionally to make sure that everything is evenly heated and cooked. While this and your pasta are cooking, now is the time to grate some cheese if you'd like to add that. I recently received one of these mouse graters as a gift, and I find that the fine grating it does makes cheese mix in evenly and melt nicely as I stir. I highly recommend a finer grating to a coarser one if you use cheese.

Once your past is done, drain it, return it to the pasta pot, and add a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You can use as little or as much as you want, but I'd advise that moderation is best here, as you can always add more if you find your pasta isn't fully coated, and use slightly more oil than vinegar. Stir it up to coat all the pasta in the oil, then add in your vegetables. If you're using cheese, put that in next and stir vigorously until it's all evenly combined. Serve and enjoy. If you're really on your toes, you might have picked up a baguette or some ciabatta during the day, but if not, I find that the pasta dish alone is plenty to satisfy the hungriest stomachs. The last time I made this, start to finish cook time was fifteen minutes. That's quicker than cooking a pizza!

You really can use any variation you want for this. When it's summertime and there are fresh tomatoes and basil in the garden, I like to add both and either skip the cheese or add chunks of fresh mozzarella when the pasta has cooled a bit. For winter, when I want heartier fare, my favorite is frozen spinach (about half a bag is good, if you're wondering) with slow roasted tomatoes from my own freezer, plus a creamy cheese like goat cheese. This past week I was on a "use up the small bits of cheese in the drawer" campaign, so I used spinach as the vegetable and then grated gouda and New Zealand cheddar to make a pasta with cheese and spinach dish. I find for something more cheesy, I prefer a firmer, heartier pasta, such as ziti, and for lighter pasta dishes in the summer, I like something more fine, like angel hair or plain spaghetti.

We are a little broke lately, so I am trying to use things I froze from the garden. This week's pasta will feature roasted butternut squash and who knows what else. I'm thinking of getting all crazy and adding some nutmeg. See? You really can use anything in this.

I will, however, caution against the use of chocolate chips.


1 comment:

holly said...

great post! i need to start moving towards whole wheat pastas, and this is a great idea to do that. as a woman who has married a carb-fanatic, pasta is a regular star in our household.