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Just Cook Something: Quick & Simple Pastas

April 24, 2014

The Tour de FroYo is quickly approaching. It’s time to move beyond your comfort zone and try something new. Maybe some folks think they don’t have what it takes to evaluate our local yogurt shops? Hogwash. If you prefer one brand of ice cream in the supermarket over all others, you’re totally qualified. If you can taste that there is a difference between Coke and Pepsi, you can do this. And it will be fun.

Seriously, check out the details here and then let me know how many people you are bringing so that Maeve can have enough scoresheets on hand. The more the merrier.

You know what else some people think they can’t do? Cook. Or maybe they can cook but it just takes too much time, requires too many ingredients, and makes a giant mess. So they’ll throw something frozen in the microwave or call for some kind of take out or delivery.

Really, I should clock myself the next few times I make these dishes, just so I know exactly how many minutes they take. But here are two healthy, wholesome and delicious meals that require little more than knowing how to boil water (and one super-delicious meal that is simply terrible for you).

Sadly, if you don’t have access to a Trader Joe’s these will be much less delicious and considerably more expensive.

Trader Joe’s has the best 100% whole grain spaghetti and rotini that I’ve ever tried, and they are organic to boot. To make it an even sweeter deal, a pound of this stuff is under $2. The problem with most whole grain pastas is that they are gritty. I don’t know what kind of deal Joe made with the devil, but these are remarkably smooth and tender. Skip their penne, it’s awful. Hey, they can’t all be winners.

So how do you cook pasta quickly? Well it only takes nine minutes. The trick is getting the water to boil. What you do NOT want to do is start with hot tap water. Hot tap water spends a fair bit of time in your hot water heater. That water is not delicious. If you ever want to try the experiment, take a glass of hot water from the tap, and cool it down in the fridge. Then taste test it against fresh cool water from your tap (after it has been running for a bit). It’s no contest.

The secret to quickly boiling water is to divide the work. I put half the water in a pasta pot with the lid on, and the other half goes in a tea kettle. When the tea kettle boils, I just pour it into the larger pot. I suppose you could do this with all four burners and really speed things up. Since you are just boiling water, the pots don’t even need to be cleaned. Bonus. Just make sure to use a lid, as that will shorten the boiling time.

Add salt to the pasta pot once all the boiling waters have been combined and drop in the pasta. Set a timer for the minimum recommended cooking interval, and you are on your way.

But plain pasta does not a dinner make.

We also happen to keep a bag of frozen organic broccoli florets on hand for such emergencies. When the pasta timer rings, dump in the whole bag of vegetables right on top of the pasta in the same water. We’re doing this all in one pot. And all you need to do is warm the vegetables through. It takes just one minute (literally) so keep a close eye on the time. Since you salted the pasta water well, the broccoli will be delicious just so long as you don’t overcook it.

Make sure to draw off a little of the pasta’s cooking water once you drop in the broccoli, as you will need it for one of the three potential sauces.

Sixty seconds after the broccoli hits the water, drain the whole mess into one colander. This is the base of your healthy meal: whole grains and dark green vegetables. It’s cardiologist heaven and paleo hell. But trust me, we’re going to make this delicious.

Healthy Sauce #1 – Aglio e olio
Slicing garlic isn’t easy, but if you can do it this will be a bit better. Putting garlic through a press is NOT an option for this preparation. However, if you wanted to simply peel a few cloves and crush them under the wide flat side of the knife (or under the butt of the handle) that would be fine. The idea is that we’re going to use hot olive oil to extract the flavor from the garlic. That’s easier to do with more exposed surface area. However, if the pieces of garlic get too small they can burn and give the oil an unpleasant flavor.

So gently crush those garlic cloves and put them in a half cup of decent olive oil over low to medium heat. Keep an eye on them. It will get aromatic, but if they start to pick up an golden color, take them off the heat. No big deal, next time lower the heat a touch.

Now, all of this can easily be done while the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking. Easily. In fact, the oil may be ready before the pasta.

If you’ve got big chunks of garlic, take them out (unless you really love garlic). Otherwise, return the pasta to the pot, dump the garlic oil on top, and toss to coat. You may need to use a bit of the reserved pasta water if you couldn’t bring yourself to use a full half cup of olive oil.

At the table, serve with crushed red pepper flakes, ground black pepper from the mill and freshly grated Parm-Reg. This is not the time or the place to skimp on buying the good cheese (or shredding it on the spot). Everything else in this meal is super cheap. The cheese is what makes this dish great. Actually, it’s what makes all three dishes great.

Healthy Sauce #2 – Brodo
Don’t think of it as soup, think of it as intensely aromatic chicken sauce. For this I use some of my homemade stock that’s in the freezer. But in a pinch you could even doctor up canned low sodium chicken broth. It’s amazing how a half onion, a bay leaf, a carrot, a stalk of celery, a couple whole cloves, and a splash of dry vermouth will take the industrial taste out of shelf stable broth.

For this, you serve the pasta in bowls, ladel over a bit of the broth, and serve with the same accompaniments: red pepper flakes, black pepper, freshly grated Parm-Reg, and maybe even a splash of good olive oil. Man, that’s tasty, soul satisfying stuff. But what’s better is…

Butter Sauce #1 – All’Alfredo
We aren’t talking fettuccini. We’re just talking about adding this sauce to our pasta. Yes, it’s blasphemy. Delicious, delicious blasphemy. And for this, all you have to do when boiling the water and cooking the pasta is prepare the cheese grater with plenty of Parm-Reg and take some good butter out of the fridge, cut it up into chunks and let it soften slightly. How much butter you take out is between you and your god.

Ideally, you will put your dinner plate near the boiling water so it will warm and your butter and cheese sauce won’t congeal while you’re eating it. This is truly one of the simplest of sauces. On your warmed plate, toss the pasta with a shit-ton of butter and an avalanche of grated Parm-Reg. Continue tossing until it’s all combined. Top with more Parm-Reg. Die happy.

But don’t die before Sunday. Because you’ve already got plans for Sunday. Sunday you are eating frozen yogurt with Maeve and some of the other FLB readers. Bring a friend too. The more the merrier. Just don’t forget to tell me about it in the comments or drop me an email. We want to make sure everyone has a scoresheet so their votes get counted.

Then you can make all’Alfredo sauce to your heart’s content.

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