Pleasing pasta menus in minutes

Here are some ideas for quick, simple dishes that go beyond the basics.

Pasta_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With Shavuot coming up soon, this is a busy period for many families. For those weekday evenings when everyone is hungry but there’s nothing prepared in advance, it’s useful to have quick menus that can be thrown together with ingredients you tend to have on hand.
A meal centered on pasta is an obvious choice. When I was cooking the recipes for my book Sensational Pasta, the dishes I most enjoyed turned out to be vegetable-dressed pastas. They tended to be fast and easy, and we ate them with pleasure, knowing they were good for us.
“Most people have never branched out beyond basic white flour pasta with tomato or meat sauce,” wrote Jeannette Bessinger and Tracee Yablon-Brenner in Simple Food for Busy Families. “This typical SAD pasta dish can easily be transformed into a healthier meal by using a smaller amount of higher quality pasta, and adding more vegetables and good-quality protein.” By SAD the authors mean the Standard American Diet, which they describe as including fast food, junk food or processed store-bought food as regular sources of nourishment. The goal is to get people to change from the SAD lifestyle to a nutritious diet of high-quality natural foods.
Bessinger and Yablon-Brenner encourage the reader to try pasta made from different grains, such as brown rice, whole wheat, soba or spelt.
They recommend homemade pasta sauces because they are tastier and more interesting than those from a jar.
They advocate a mix-and-match formula for creating easy, wholesome pasta dishes. Choose a basic sauce and add a protein element and a selection of vegetables.
With olive oil and garlic as a sauce, add sauteed vegetables like arugula, mushrooms, carrots or soaked sun-dried tomato strips, and beans or grated cheese as protein.
With tomato sauce you can use heartier toppings, such as sauteed ground turkey or turkey sausage matched with eggplant. Particularly fast are their pasta dishes dressed with uncooked sauces. Peanut butter sauce goes well with tofu, Chinese cabbage and Asian noodles. Pestosauced whole grain pasta can be topped with cooked fish fillets and broccoli.
A PRACTICAL approach is presented by Jamie Geller, author of Quick & Kosher Meals in Minutes from the Bride Who Knew Nothing. In order to avoid timeconsuming chopping, she advises making use of a variety of prepared ingredients, such as cubes of frozen herbs, bottled marinades, sauces and dressings, packaged shredded cheeses, instant rice and store-bought diced fruit.
Geller comes up with appealing, nutritious 20- minute pasta meals. Pasta bow ties are dressed with peas and a creamy uncooked salmon dill lemon sauce made with light mayonnaise; because the salmon is canned, the sauce requires no cooking. Her vegetarian entree of soba noodles is very easy to prepare; the buckwheat noodles are tossed with stir-fried tofu in bottled teriyaki sauce with frozen edamame (green soy beans) and green onions.
I have often advised my students to save time by cooking pasta and vegetables together. Geller does this in her whole-wheat spaghetti with goat cheese and sweet potatoes. To ensure that the sweet potatoes cook as quickly as the spaghetti, she cuts them into matchsticks. The red onion and zucchini in the dish need no cooking at all; sliced very thin with a mandoline cutter, they are slightly softened by the hot pasta. The spaghetti, vegetable and goat cheese combination is moistened with olive oil heated gently with garlic and fresh thyme and is sprinkled with walnuts.
Restaurant chef Kevin Graham, author of Grains, Rice, and Beans, uses these wholesome ingredients as the basis for creative dishes. To make flavorful sauces that are low in fat, he uses dried legumes. The sauce for his linguine with caraway and minted pea puree is made of dried peas cooked with onion, chicken stock and caraway seeds and flavored with
olive oil and fresh mint.
Graham makes a refreshing soba noodle and smoked salmon entree with orange and lemon segments, green onion and shredded cucumber; the pasta is flavored with garlic and cilantro sauteed briefly in a touch of olive oil. His healthful dish of soba and sauteed shiitake mushrooms is seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and green onions and served over fresh uncooked spinach.
Choosing pasta made from a different grain is an easy way to add variety to meals because your usual pasta supper dishes gain a new taste. For example, Graham finds that soba noodles “absorb the flavor of sauces, broths and other seasonings much better than wheat- or rice-based noodles.”
This recipe is from Quick & Kosher Meals in Minutes by Jamie Geller. She writes: “Soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat, originated in Japan, where it isn’t considered bad manners to slurp the noodles.”
Geller recommends thawing frozen vegetables in a coldwater bath and draining them just before using so they won’t be soggy.
If you don’t have soba noodles, use whole-wheat spaghetti. Geller specified ginger teriyaki sauce; use any teriyaki sauce you have. Sauteed Chinese cabbage with ginger and soy sauce is a good accompaniment.
225 to 250 gr. (8 to 9 oz.) soba noodles 2 Tbsp. canola oil a 400-gr. (14-oz.) container firm tofu, cut into 1-cm. (3⁄4-in.) cubes, drained on paper towels 2 cloves garlic, minced or 2 frozen crushed garlic cubes 1⁄2 cup ginger teriyaki sauce 1⁄2 cup water (optional) 1 cup frozen shelled edamame, thawed 2 scallions, thinly sliced diagonally
Cook noodles according to package instructions.
In a wok or large saute pan, heat canola oil over high heat. Add tofu and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.
Add garlic and gently mix to combine. Cook for 1 minute and add noodles. Toss noodles with tofu and garlic.
Add teriyaki sauce and toss. Add water by the tablespoon, if needed, to fully coat the noodles and tofu with sauce.
Add edamame and scallions. Toss gently and heat through.
Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings
The linguine in a simple sauce of olive oil and garlic is flecked with bits of bright green broccoli and basil and red sun-dried tomatoes. Flavor the dish with a little grated Parmesan, crumbled feta or other flavorful cheese if you like, and pass more of the cheese at serving time.
You can save the thick broccoli stems to use in soups.
700 to 800 gr. (11⁄2 to 13⁄4 lbs.) broccoli, divided in very small florets, thick stems removed 225 gr. (8 oz.) dried whole-grain or white linguine 3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 2 large garlic cloves, minced 1⁄4 cup coarsely chopped or diced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves (optional) 1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan or other grating cheese, or to taste (optional) Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add salt, then linguine.
Cook according to package instructions, adding broccoli florets 3 or 4 minutes before the cooking time is up. Drain, reserving 1⁄2 cup of the cooking liquid.
Transfer broccoli and linguine mixture to a large serving bowl. Toss with 1 Tbsp. olive oil.
Heat remaining olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and saute for a few seconds. Add linguine and broccoli mixture and heat, tossing gently, for about 1⁄2 minute. Off heat, stir in sun-dried tomatoes and half the basil. If pasta is not moist enough, add some of the pasta cooking liquid, a spoonful at a time.
Return pasta to bowl. Add cheese and toss again. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or at room temperature, topped with remaining basil; if you like, serve with a separate bowl with more cheese.
Makes 4 servings
The writer is the author of Sensational Pasta and of 30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes.