There are some days when I don’t want to take four hours to make a spectacular dinner and just want something quick and easy. That’s usually when I turn to pasta. Because I am married to The Artist, pasta is always in our pantry, usually in copious quantities. All shapes and sizes to suit our moods and the specific sauce I’m serving it with.
Today’s three recipes couldn’t be any easier, quicker or more delicious. I think they make Italian cuisine shine, proving the fact that you don’t need a lot of ingredients to make a fantastic meal. But one caution, when you have recipes with just a few ingredients, you should try to use the best you can find and afford. This is the time for the extra-virgin olive oil instead of regular olive oil or other vegetable oil.
Let me take a moment to climb onto my soapbox. OK, now that I’m up here I need to ask you to avoid buying the green tube of dried cheese. I know, I grew up with it too and didn’t know any better until I became an adult, but honestly, you will thank me when you taste the difference between that cardboard-tasting cheese and freshly grated Parmesan. Some stores like Whole Foods sells good quality pre-grated cheese, but if you are in doubt as to its freshness, buy a block and grate it yourself. Thank you, I’m back on the ground again, LOL!
By far the best graters on the market these days are made by Microplane and come in several different designs. The wider the blades are from each other, the broader the slices that come off of it. When you get the smallest one, the cheese that comes off of it is incredibly light and powdery, perfect for any application. They are not expensive and make wonderful gifts for the food lovers in your life!
Pasta Caprese is a simple dish made with pasta, fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and mozzarella cheese. There is a trick to making sure the cheese doesn’t turn into a filling-pulling sticky mass. If you can find fresh mozzarella, the kind stored in a milky-looking liquid, cut it into bite-sized pieces and marinate it with the tomatoes. But if all you can find are the blocks of mozzarella, cut it up and freeze it for about 10 minutes before tossing with the pasta and sauce. This helps it keep its shape and melt at the appropriate pace.
The Tagliolini al Limone is like a lighter, fresher version of Alfredo. If you wanted to make it even lighter you could cut back on both the cream and the cheese, but I love it just the way it is. I just don’t eat a whole pound of it myself!
Far and away the easiest and fastest of the three is my version of the Classic Aglio e Olio. That means garlic and oil in Italian and that is just about all that is in the sauce. It appears to have originated in the Abruzzo region of Italy but is popular all over the country. If you have Italian family members from Southern Italy, they will want to add red chile flakes or pepperoncini for a little heat. You can also use this as the base for any number of additional ingredients. I often use it as a way to utilize the vegetables I have in the refrigerator and The Artist always loves it.
When you are making this in the hot summer months, leave out the butter and serve it at room temperature. In the winter it will warm your soul and your tummy. If you are making this for children, you can leave out the garlic or cut it back to suit their tastes.
Two of the recipes call for shallots and if you haven’t ever tried them, you are in for a treat. If there are people in your life who don’t particularly care for garlic, shallots are your answer. Another aromatic, shallots have a flavor somewhere between an onion and garlic. A little sweeter than garlic and a little less “hot” than onions. French chefs utilize shallots more than any other cuisine that I am aware of, and I can see why. They have become my favorite aromatic and I use them in nearly every savory dish I make.
Did you know there is a reason for every shape of pasta and why some have ribs while others don’t? Leave it to those crafty Italians to figure out how to keep sauce on the pasta and to design shapes that complement every style you make. And there really is a difference between fresh and dried pastas other than the obvious. Fresh pasta tends to soak up sauce and dried pastas support it.
The shapes can be broken down into five different categories: Strings/Round, Ribbons/Flat, Tubes, Shapes and Mini Pastas. String pastas (spaghetti, vermicelli, capellini, etc.) are perfect for any olive oil-based sauce. Ribbons (linguine, fettuccine, tagliatelle, etc.) hold onto cream and butter sauces. Tubes (penne, penne rigate, macaroni, ziti, rigatoni, etc.) work well with heavy sauces like mac and cheese. Shaped pastas (fusili, farfalle, orchiette, radiatore, etc.) can be used with anything you like, but I think they are best with a ragu, a sugo or other meat sauces. Whenever a shape has deep pockets, sauce collects there making it easier to get all the flavor in each bite. And ridges on the outside of pastas help them hold onto the sauce. Mini pastas are perfect for soups and salads.
Once you’ve made these a couple of times you won’t need a recipe anymore which makes it even faster to put together. When you’ve had a long, hard day, look to these recipes for a quick, healthy meal. I know you will enjoy the depth of flavors and speed of preparation.
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
You may not be aware of this (I wasn’t until recently) but the second largest grower of durum wheat – the kind of wheat they make most pasta out of – is our own South Dakota! And thanks to strenuous quality controls, it is arguably even better than that grown in Italy these days. So, save yourself the money and buy American pasta instead of the imported versions. Chances are they are made with American wheat anyway!
Kitchen Skill: Grating Cheeses
While this may seem self-explanatory, the real trick to grating your own cheese (which, by the way, will save you tons of money) is the quality of your grater. In my opinion, the best graters on the market are made by Microplane. Borrowing from a woodworkers shop, they took the simple plane and converted it to a kitchen grater. Brilliant! Nothing works better or more simply. One caution – buy the one with the handle – it is safer and more comfortable to use. I have several of these, in different coarseness to produce different results. I use them for cheese, chocolate, nutmeg, and citrus zest. They are workhorses in my kitchen.
- 1 lb long pasta such as fettuccine, spaghetti, linguine, capellini, etc.
- 1/3 cup high quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and center removed if sprouted, finely minced
- 2 shallots, peeled and finely minced
- 1 tsp sweet paprika, optional
- 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes, optional
- 1 tbsp butter, optional *
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- Freshly ground white or black pepper
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Cook pasta in a very large pot of well salted boiling water until al dente, about 1 minute less than directed on most packages. When done pour into a strainer or colander and shake lightly to remove excess water. Return to dry pot.
- While pasta is cooking, prepare olive oil sauce. In a large skillet combine the oil, garlic, shallots, paprika, pepper flakes (if using), butter, parsley and oregano. Heat over medium-low heat and cook until garlic just starts to get some color. Remove from the heat and add cooked pasta.
- Toss until all pasta is well coated and sauce is evenly distributed. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl or warmed individual bowls. Grind some pepper over each serving. Sprinkle the top with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately. Pass additional cheese at the table.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
- While I love the simplicity of this dish as is, you can also add other ingredients if you like. Some additions include sauteed mushrooms, sliced olives, slivered sun-dried tomatoes or chopped fresh tomatoes, uncooked shelled shrimp, fresh basil leaves, lightly toasted pine nuts or chopped zucchini.
- * The addition of butter is purely for the flavor and richness it gives to a sauce. You can leave it out if you prefer.
- 1/4 cup high quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 to 4 tsp fresh lemon juice, divided
- 1 small garlic clove, minced finely (about 1/2 tsp)
- 1 small shallot, minced finely (about 2 tbsp)
- 1-1/2 lb ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 12 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (if you cannot find fresh mozzarella, freeze cubes for 10 minutes)
- 1 lb penne pasta or other short pasta such as fusilli or campanelle
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1 tsp sugar (if needed to balance the acidity of the tomatoes)
- Whisk oil, 2 tsp lemon juice, garlic, shallot, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper together in large bowl. Add tomatoes and gently toss to combine; set aside. If using fresh mozzarella, marinate with tomatoes. Do not marinate tomatoes for longer than 45 minutes.
- While tomatoes are marinating, if you are not using fresh mozzarella, place cubes on plate and freeze until slightly firm, about 10 minutes.
- Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil in stockpot. Add 1 tbsp salt and the pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente. Drain well.
- Add pasta and mozzarella to tomato mixture and gently toss to combine. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in basil; adjust seasonings with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice or sugar, if desired, and serve immediately.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 1/2 lb tagliolini pasta
- 2 tbsp butter
- 8 large basil leaves, julienned or fresh thyme leaves, chopped
- 2 tbsp plus 2 tsp lemon juice
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Fresh ground black pepper
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
- Cook the pasta: In a large bowl of salted boiling water, add the pasta. Cook until al dente according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta.
- While the pasta is cooking, start to make the sauce: In a medium sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the basil and cook, stirring frequently, until aromatic, about 3 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and continue to cook until reduced by half. Reduce the heat to low and add the cream. Slowly cook the cream until it thickens to a sauce consistency, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Divide the pasta between serving bowls and ladle the sauce evenly over the servings. Divide the cheese between the portions, sprinkling it evenly over the sauce, and top each serving with a few grinds of pepper. Serve each portion with a lemon wedge on the side.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings