We're always ready for spaghetti.
Piled high with meatballs and red sauce.
Swimming in garlic and olive oil, studded with feta and shrimp.
At room temperature, the hint of peanuts and sesame transporting us from Europe to Asia.
Yes, the blank canvas of pasta serves busy families well as they head back to school and crushing schedules. Change up the sauce and the versatile noodle can come to the table two or three times a week with no complaints from the hungry hordes.
The trick is to find a sauce recipe that takes just about as much time to make as the pasta does to cook. We've gathered some recipes like that here, save for Spaghetti and Meatballs, which takes a bit longer. Still, you could make the meatballs one night and put the dish together the next.
Most recipes call for cooking the pasta "al dente," which means "to the tooth" in Italian. Translated for the cook, that means the pasta should retain its form and have some firmness to it when you take a bite. This is a matter of taste. Undercooked pasta is not easy to bite into, plus it harbors an uncooked flour taste. Pasta can really be too al dente. If left too long in the water it becomes more than a wet noodle; it becomes mush.
Experiment with cooking times to determine how you like your pasta. An extra minute, more or less, could be the difference between perfection and not so much. Forget the toss-the-noodle-on-the-wall trick to see if it sticks. Taste one before you drain the water.
What is not debated, however, is that pasta needs room in the pan so that boiling water can circulate around it. Make sure your pan is big enough for the amount of pasta you are cooking and plenty of water. Bring the water to a boil before dropping in dried pasta. Most cooks salt the water before adding the pasta to give the plain Jane noodles additional flavor.
Let the water return to a boil before turning it down to a simmer. A pound of spaghetti will be ready in about 10 minutes. Thinner pasta, such as angel hair or linguine, will take less time, and thicker pasta, such as penne or fettuccine, takes longer.
Before you drain the pasta, always dip a coffee cup into the water to reserve some as insurance. The starchy water will help thin out pasta sauces better than cold tap water.
In general, the sauce should not drown the pasta. Lidia Bastianich, famed restaurateur and PBS cooking show host, often admonishes viewers that you are serving pasta with sauce, not sauce with pasta. A little goes a long way.
We very much like her speedy marinara sauce recipe that accompanies this story. Simply adorned with fresh basil, it turns spaghetti into a tasty main or side dish, depending on your mood and appetite. Make this your go-to recipe for baked pastas, too.
Greek-Style Pasta With Shrimp gives spaghetti a Mediterranean spin. The accompanying recipe is simple and can be made even quicker with a thinner noodle.
Leftovers of all these dishes can be toted for school or work lunches. And that fits our motto for the school year: "Double Duty."
Times photo editor Patty Yablonski contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
Greek-Style Pasta With Shrimp
1/4 cup olive oil
4 teaspoons minced garlic
1 pound uncooked medium shrimp, peeled, deveined
1 1/2 cups drained canned artichoke hearts, chopped
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup chopped seeded tomatoes
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
12 ounces angel hair pasta, linguine or spaghetti
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and saute 30 seconds. Add shrimp and saute until almost cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add artichokes, feta, tomatoes, lemon juice, parsley and oregano and saute until shrimp are cooked through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Transfer pasta to large bowl.
Add shrimp mixture to pasta and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
Source: Bon Appétit and Cottage Inn, Eureka Springs, Ark.
Fresh Basil Pesto
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Special equipment needed:
a food processor
Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, then pulse a few times in a food processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before adding the basil.) Add the garlic, then pulse a few times more.
Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Makes 1 cup, enough for 12 ounces to 1 pound of pasta, depending on how much sauce you like.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
1 pound dry spaghetti
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta or slab bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking to ensure that the spaghetti will be hot and ready when the sauce is finished; it is important that the pasta is hot when adding the egg mixture, so that the heat of the pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm ("al dente" in Italian.) Drain the pasta well, reserving 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking water to use in the sauce if you wish.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute for about 3 minutes, until the bacon is crisp and the fat is rendered. Toss the garlic into the fat and saute for less than 1 minute to soften.
Add the hot, drained spaghetti to the pan and toss for 2 minutes to coat the strands in the bacon fat. Beat the eggs and Parmesan together in a mixing bowl, stirring well to prevent lumps. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the egg/cheese mixture into the pasta, whisking quickly until the eggs thicken, but do not scramble (this is done off the heat to ensure this does not happen.) Thin out the sauce with a bit of the reserved pasta water, until it reaches desired consistency. Season the carbonara with several turns of freshly ground black pepper and taste for salt. Mound the spaghetti carbonara into warm serving bowls and garnish with chopped parsley. Pass more cheese around the table.
Source: Janet K. Keeler, Times food editor
Cold Sesame Noodles
1 pound dry lo mein, linguine or spaghetti
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice or white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon Oriental sesame oil
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
1/2 cup chicken broth
Cook pasta according to package instructions. While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce.
Combine all sauce ingredients in a saucepan and simmer over low heat until thick and smooth. Cool slightly.
Toss drained pasta with sauce. Serve at room temperature. Can garnish with chopped scallion and cucumber strips.
Serves 4 to 6.
20-Minute Marinara Sauce With Fresh Basil
4 cups (one 35-ounce can) San Marzano or other Italian plum tomatoes, with juices
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
7 or 8 fat garlic cloves, sliced (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 stalk or big sprigs basil, with 20 or so whole leaves
1/3 cup shredded fresh basil leaves, packed (about 12 whole leaves)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
Pour the tomatoes and juice into a big mixing bowl. Using both hands, crush the tomatoes and break them up into small pieces. (You don't have to mash them to bits; leave them chunky.)
Pour the oil into the big skillet, scatter the garlic slices in the oil, and set over medium-high heat. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes or so, until the slices are sizzling, then add and toast the hot red pepper flakes in a hot spot for another 1/2 minute.
Shake and stir the pan until the garlic slices are light gold and starting to darken. Immediately pour in the crushed tomatoes and stir in with the garlic. Rinse out the tomato can and bowl with 1 cup of pasta-cooking water, and dump it into the skillet too.
Raise the heat; sprinkle in the salt and stir. Push the stalk or sprigs of basil into the sauce until completely covered. When the sauce is boiling, cover the pan, reduce the heat slightly, and cook for 10 minutes at an actively bubbling simmer.
Uncover the pan and cook another 5 minutes or so. The sauce should be only slightly reduced from the original volume, still loose and juicy. Remove the poached basil stalk or sprigs from the skillet and discard (but save the sauce that's clinging to it), and keep at a low simmer until the pasta is ready.
To dress pasta with marinara sauce, toss and cook them together, incorporating the shredded basil. Remove the skillet from the heat and toss in the cheese just before serving.
Makes 4 cups of sauce, enough to dress 1 pound of pasta.
Source: Lidia's Family Table by Lidia Bastianich with David Nussbaum (Knopf, 2004)
Spaghetti and Meatballs
1 pound spaghetti
Salt, for pasta water
1 1/4 pounds ground sirloin
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano cheese
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup beef stock
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
A handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
10 leaves fresh basil leaves, torn or thinly sliced
Grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano, for passing at table
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place a large pot of water on to boil for spaghetti. When it boils, add salt and pasta and cook to al dente.
Mix beef and Worcestershire, egg, bread crumbs, cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Roll meat into 1 1/2-inch medium-sized meatballs and place on nonstick cookie sheet or a cookie sheet greased with extra-virgin olive oil. Bake meatballs 10 to 12 minutes, until no longer pink.
Heat a deep skillet or medium pot over moderate heat. Add oil, crushed pepper, garlic and finely chopped onion. Saute 5 to 7 minutes, until onion bits are soft. Add beef stock, crushed tomatoes and herbs. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.
Toss hot, drained pasta with a few ladles of the sauce and grated cheese. Turn meatballs in remaining sauce. Place pasta on dinner plates and top with meatballs and sauce and extra grated cheese. Serve with bread or garlic bread.
Source: Rachael Ray, Food Network