On hectic nights, pasta is a worthy go-to dinner. The dried variety is generally cheap — especially when it's on sale two-for-one — and an accompanying jar of prepared sauce can get dinner on the table in a snap.
But how boring is that?
I won't promise that making your own sauce is as lickety-split as breaking the vacuum seal on the jar, but there are many ways to adorn pasta that don't take much longer. In fact, you can have a tasty sauce ready before the pasta is even cooked al dente. Always save a cup or so of the pasta water to add to pasta if it appears too dry once sauced.
Consider changing up the pasta to create interest. For instance, wide pappardelle swathed in Parmesan and butter is a delicious dish for a picky kid, and adults who appreciate simplicity. Orecchiette — or little ears — cradles the goodness of tuna and capers. In general, slick sauces go swimmingly with strands or ribbons while shapes and tubes are better for thick or chunky sauces. Some pastas we know well from their Italian names such as ziti and penne, which literally translated mean "bridegrooms" and "quills," and others we call more routinely by their English names such as shells, rather than conchiglie.
From various sources and my own kitchen repertoire, I've gathered 25 simple sauces, all making enough for 1 pound of dried pasta. That amount feeds six as a starter or side dish or four as a main course, depending on appetites. I've recommended a pasta with each sauce, though you can easily substitute one shape for another or one strand for a variety you like better.
These sauces are open to interpretation and experimentation. Let them, plus your pantry and imagination, be your guide.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Mix 6 to 7 seeded and diced ripe tomatoes with 1 clove crushed garlic, 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper. Variations: Add 8 ounces diced fresh mozzarella or 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest.
Heat 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in skillet, saute 1 cup chopped carrots and one minced garlic clove over medium heat. Add 2 cups cherry tomatoes and saute for another 30 seconds. Add 1 cup chicken stock, bring to boil and add 1 pound asparagus, cut into 1-inch lengths, and 1 box frozen peas. Cook until vegetables are tender. Add to pasta with 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil.
To hot, drained pasta, add 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, 3/4 cup grated Emmentaler, Gruyere or Edam and the same about of mozzarella or fontina. Add 1 stick of butter cut into small pieces. Toss well to coat, adding 1/2 cup of pasta water to loosen if needed. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
Pasta: tortellini or elbows
LEMON ARTICHOKE PESTO
Place 1/4 cup cilantro, 8 medium garlic cloves, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 cup walnuts, 1/3 cups each canola oil and extra-virgin olive oil, and salt into a food processor. Pulse until smooth, then pour into a large bowl. Gently stir in chopped 8-ounce box of thawed frozen artichokes and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
TOMATO, ONION AND MUSHROOM
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add 1 cup chopped onion, cooking until translucent, about 5 minutes. Cut 4 tomatoes in wedges and add them along with 2 cups sliced button mushrooms, then simmer for about 20 minutes. Sauce will reduce and be thick. Stir in 1/4 cup fresh basil and season with salt and pepper.
Pasta: whole wheat penne or elbows
QUICK CHICKEN ALFREDO
Melt 1 stick butter in a medium, nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add 8 ounces cream cheese and 2 teaspoons garlic powder, stirring with whisk until smooth. Add 2 cups milk, a little at a time, whisking to smooth out lumps. Stir in 6 ounces grated Parmesan and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper. Remove from heat when sauce reaches desired consistency. Sauce will thicken rapidly. Thin with milk if cooked too long. Toss with hot pasta and diced white meat of rotisserie chicken.
Pasta: vermicelli or fettuccine
Heat 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet and cook scallops for about 1 minute, until firm and white. Pour over drained hot pasta in a large serving bowl, squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over all and season with white pepper. Stir gently to combine. Then scatter Parmesan cheese and chopped flat-leaf parsley over dish.
WHITE WINE, MUSHROOM AND CREAM
Saute 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms and 2 small minced garlic cloves in 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Add 1/4 cup white wine and cook until just evaporated. Stir in 1/2 cup cream and heat gently until thick. Season with salt and pepper. Combine with pasta and garnish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Pasta: tagliatelle, vermicelli or pappardelle
SAUTEED GARLIC AND BROCCOLI
Heat 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a saucepan and add 3 minced garlic cloves, cooking until garlic turns golden. Add 3 cups broccoli florets and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, cook for a couple of minutes then add 1 1/2 cups chicken broth. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Pasta: rigatoni, cavatappi or shells
Heat 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet. Add 1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp and cook through; remove with slotted spoon and set aside. To remaining oil in skillet, add 4 large, minced garlic cloves, some red pepper flakes and about 1/2 cup white wine. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for a minute, then add 1/2 stick butter in pieces. Return shrimp and heat briefly. Mix with pasta and garnish with chopped parsley.
Pasta: angel hair
WHITE BEAN SAUCE
In a large saucepan, saute 1 cup chopped onion and 3 cloves minced garlic in 2 tablespoons of melted butter until tender. Stir in 1/4 cup flour and freshly ground pepper. Pour in 2 2/3 cups milk all at once and cook for another minute. Add 3 cups shredded Swiss cheese and, when it melts, stir in 2 cans drained Northern beans and 1 can drained diced chilies.
Pasta: cavatappi or rigatoni
GARLIC AND LEMON WITH ARUGULA
Heat 1/2 cup olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet. Add 1 tablespoon each minced garlic and grated lemon peel and 1/4 cup each lemon juice and chicken broth. Season with salt and pepper. Add hot, drained pasta to skillet along with 1 cup baby arugula and handful of chopped parsley. Garnish with grated Parmesan.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet. Add 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 2 cans diced tomatoes, 1 tablespoon capers, 2 drained and chopped anchovies, a handful of sliced green olives, some red pepper flakes and a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped. Simmer for 10 minutes.
TUNA AND CAPERS
In a large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil over low heat. Add 1 chopped onion and 2 cloves crushed garlic; cook and stir until onion is tender. Stir in 1 tablespoon each capers, lemon juice and chopped fresh parsley, and add 1 can crushed tomatoes. Season with red pepper flakes to taste. Simmer gently for 3 minutes to thicken sauce. Fold in 2 (6-ounce) cans drained tuna, and heat through.
FRESH HERBS WITH BREAD CRUMBS
Melt 1 stick butter in large skillet. Add 2 cups fresh bread crumbs and toss. Transfer to a foil or parchment-lined baking pan and brown until golden in 350-degree oven. Combine with 1 cup chopped herbs such as basil, parsley, dill and oregano and 1 teaspoon salt. Drain hot pasta and toss with 1/4 cup olive oil and 1 teaspoon pepper. Scatter herbed crumbs over the top.
Pasta: shells or elbows
WHITE CLAM SAUCE
In a large skillet, saute 2 minced cloves garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil. Add liquid from 3 cans minced clams, 3/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 tablespoons white wine, 1 teaspoon dried basil and salt to taste. Cook for 10 minutes. Stir in clams and heat through.
Pasta: linguine or spaghetti
BACON AND SCALLIONS
Cook 8 slices bacon in a skillet until crispy. Remove to paper towels to drain; discard fat in pan. Add 2 tablespoons each extra-virgin olive oil and butter. When melted, stir in 8 sliced scallions and cook until just soft. Add cooked pasta, 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan and bacon to skillet and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Pasta: shells or penne
Combine 2 cans tuna in olive oil, drained, with 6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered, 1 cup small grape tomatoes, 1 small red onion, sliced very thin, 1 cup cooked green beans, halved, 1/4 cup Nicoise olives. Mix 1/2 cup lemon juice, 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard and, if desired, 1 teaspoon anchovy paste. Combine with tuna and room-temperature pasta.
LEMON, BASIL AND MASCARPONE
Gently warm 5 tablespoons lemon juice, some grated lemon zest and 8 ounces of mascarpone in a large skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Add cooked, drained pasta and a handful of torn fresh basil leaves.
Pasta: angel hair
Mix 1 1/2 pounds seeded and coarsely chopped plum tomatoes with 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cut into strips, 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and 3 teaspoons red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and toss with hot, drained pasta. Garnish with 1/2 cup chopped basil.
LIME AND TEQUILA SALMON
Bring 1/2 cup lime juice, 1/2 cup tequila and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar to a boil. Add 3 garlic cloves, minced, and white parts of 4 scallions, sliced. (Reserve sliced green tops for garnish.) When liquid is reduced by a quarter, add 1 1/2 cups cream. Reduce by half. Combine with hot pasta and 2 cups cooked salmon. Top with zest of 1 lime and reserved sliced scallion greens.
Pasta: orecchiette or rotini
SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO
Put 1 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, 1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts and 3 peeled garlic cloves in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Add 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and process until emulsified. Garnish with grated Romano.
Pasta: linguine or vermicelli
Saute 4 ounces chopped pancetta or bacon in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil until crispy, add 4 finely chopped garlic cloves. Add pasta. Beat in 2 large eggs and 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Garnish with more cheese, black pepper and chopped parsley.
SMOKED SALMON AND CAPERS
Add 8 ounces softened cream cheese to drained hot pasta and stir. Add 1/2 pound smoked salmon, cut in pieces, 1 tablespoon capers and the juice and zest of one lemon.
Pasta: bow-ties or fusilli
PARMESAN AND BUTTER
Add 1 stick of unsalted butter to cooked pasta; toss well to coat. Mix in 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with more grated cheese and minced flat-leaf parsley.
Times staff writer Lennie Bennett contributed to this report. Sources: Times files, Food Network, Epicurious.com, Pasta Every Way for Everyday by Eric Treuille and Anna Del Conte (DK, 2000)