An experimental wife is always ready for a hungry husband, a lazy day, or unexpected guests. But she doesn’t always slave away over the stove: she keeps her kitchen stocked with staples and knows how to improvise nutritious food quickly.
Pasta and sauce is a fast meal that you can easily throw together at the last minute. Of course you need pasta. But besides that, you can get away with improvising pasta regardless of what’s in your pantry.
Tomato sauce is the go-to pasta sauce. It’s great to keep at least one extra can of whole, peeled tomatoes in sauce on hand at all times. (Crushing the tomatoes in your hand or chopping them into bits adds a heartiness to your sauce that thinner tomato sauces and crushed tomatoes just can’t match.) If not, plunder around in your pantry for some tomato sauce or even tomato soup in a pinch. And don’t be afraid to jazz up plain, old Prego.
Throw whatever tomato-based ingredients you have in a sauce pan to heat while your pasta boils. Be sure to add salt and pepper to taste. You can even add a fourth of a cup of cream and a fourth of a cup of vodka to any tomato-based sauce for vodka sauce.
No tomato-based products? No problem.
A leafy green, olive oil, and parmesan cheese make a pesto. Fresh basil and parmesan are traditional, but you can experiment with other hard cheeses or herbs, such as dill or mint. (Use a neutral oil like vegetable or grape seed if you’re being particularly adventurous.) Spinach or arugula can be particularly nice. Toss your three cups of your green, one cup of your oil, a fourth of a cup of your cheese, and a cup of walnuts or pine nuts into the blender or food processor and you’ve got yourself a tasty treat.
Olive oil or butter is a failsafe pasta sauce. Pour in oil or add butter to taste. Be sure to save a little of the cooking water from the pasta to keep your dish nice and moist if the pasta tastes right but still seems a little dry. (An oil sauce shouldn’t be oily.) Before you serve, just add a little salt. Most dried common herbs—think basil, oregano, and parsley—go great in an oil-based sauce.
Sage and browned butter is très chic. Melt a fourth of a cup of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring consistently. (It’s very easy to burn butter, so keep an eye on this one.) After three or four minutes, it will start to turn brown. Add one teaspoon of dried sage and a fourth of a teaspoon of salt.
Cheese sauce is easier than you think. Add three tablespoons of flour to three tablespoons of melted butter. When the mixture is brown, add two and a half cups of milk (even 2% and skim will work), a fourth of a cup at a time. Mix with a third of a cup to half a cup of the cheese of your choice—shred it or crumble it first. Swiss and cheddar are no-brainers, but goat cheese or blue cheese make a soul-food staple into a gourmet treat.
Ready to Jazz Things Up?
- Toss vegetables in the pot: carrots, celery, and artichoke hearts go great plain; onion, garlic, mushrooms, and zucchini work well with a quick sauté to soften them. If you’re making a tomato-based sauce, puree the whole thing with an immersion blender for a smoother sauce. You can also cook frozen vegetables in the same water as your pasta to save time and mess.
- Beans work surprisingly well in pasta sauces, especially oil-based ones. Add chickpeas or cannellini beans for authentic, Italian flavor.
- Bread crumbs add a hearty crunch to any pasta dish. Try sprinkling them on top of a tomato or cheese sauce.
- You can always add meat for an added heartiness. Ground beef, sausage, and grilled chicken are standard, while seafood or canned tuna can be a special treat.