By Lisa Futterman, Special to Tribune Newspapers
July 18, 2012
Nothing makes weeknight dinners easier than keeping a fully stocked pantry. And nothing says "satisfying weeknight dinner" better than a family-size bowl of seasonally inspired pasta.
Whether you are shopping for produce at your local farmers market or your grocery store or even harvesting from your own vegetable garden, our tips will help you keep those fresh and tasty meals coming year-round.
Once your pantry is stocked, just follow the formula to help you riff on the ingredients. Your pasta repertoire will expand exponentially.
Start with staples
Keep these basics on hand to build the foundation of delicious pasta dishes.
Dried pasta: Buy your favorite brand when it goes on sale. Make sure to pick up lots of shapes, including thin and thick versions of long pastas and several fun short ones. You'll be surprised at how different sauces taste when tossed with different noodles.
Fresh pasta: If your supermarket carries a local brand of frozen ravioli or tortellini, grab a couple of bags to have on hand. We prefer frozen fresh pasta to refrigerated.
Olive oil: Don't buy the cheapest, but don't buy the most expensive either. A good store brand Italian or Spanish olive oil will help carry flavors throughout a pasta dish.
Tomato paste: A squeeze of tomato paste from a tube stored in the refrigerator can build a rich base of flavor when cooked for a few moments with your aromatics. See our formula for the tasty details.
Canned tomatoes: A few cans of whole peeled tomatoes and a few cans of crushed should be at the ready even for quick simmered sauces. Choose a brand that's imported from Italy. We also keep a jar of prepared marinara sauce on hand to add to our quickest weeknight creations.
Dried herbs and spices: A well-edited collection of spices and herbs can lift a limited pantry. We suggest dried oregano, bay leaf, nutmeg, black peppercorns for grinding, and cayenne or red chile flakes if you like some heat.
Chickpeas and beans: Canned legumes can be drained, rinsed and tossed with pastas for a big protein boost. Experiment with different colors and sizes.
Anchovies, tuna, sardines: Canned fish can scare off some folks, but their depth of flavor brings out the best in so many dishes. Buy the best quality fish packed in olive oil and add the whole can to your sauce.
Wine, stock: A glug of white wine or stock (or both!) can add just enough liquid to a sauce without watering down flavor. Save the last glass in the bottle in the fridge, and buy low sodium broths in small cartons or cans.
Frozen peas: On days when even a quick trip to the supermarket is out of the question, a handful of frozen baby peas tossed into the pasta pot at the end of the noodles' cooking time will add color and nutrients.
Your perishable pantry may need to be restocked every time you shop, but the rewards are huge. These necessities can be supplemented by seasonal vegetables and your favorite meats and seafood.
Garlic, onions, shallots: These staples, along with fennel, celery and carrots, are also known as aromatics, and will help build a base of flavor.
Cream: Though it's definitely not low in calories, cream can't be beat for quick, rich alfredo-style sauces. Look for a brand that is not labeled "ultra-pasteurized" for a fresher flavor and better sauce texture.
Bacon, prosciutto, sausage: These flavor-packed meats can be stored in the freezer and quickly thawed any time your pastas need a little porky oomph.
Fresh herbs: Often the secret ingredient for bright-tasting dishes. Dried herbs are terrific in long-simmered sauces, but fresh ones are chopped and added at the end for color and vibrancy.
Hard cheese: Keep a chunk or two around for grating over finished pastas. Splurge on a true Parmigiano Reggiano for a refined touch, or seek out a pecorino Romano for an authentically rustic saltiness.
Follow the formula
1. Boil: Heat a big pot of well-salted water for cooking pasta and blanching vegetables.
2. Saute: Heat olive oil in a large skillet and saute your aromatics. Any garlic, shallots or onions go in the pan now. This step should include any bacon, prosciutto or sausage too. Chopped vegetables (carrots, celery, zucchini, mushrooms or fennel) should be cooked now. If you are using tomato paste, add that toward the end of this step, and cook for 1 minute.
3. Cook pasta: At this point the water is probably boiling; cook the pasta. Add vegetables like broccoli, green beans and cauliflower to cook with the pasta.
4. Deglaze and make sauce: If you are using wine, stock or cream, or tomatoes, dried herbs and spices, add them to your olive oil pan here. This is also when you would add canned seafood. Stir while heating to blend flavors. Now you can add cooked chicken, shrimp, canned beans, fresh herbs, and fresh greens like spinach, kale or arugula.
5. Finish: Drain the pasta in a colander. Add the pasta to the sauce in the pan and heat to a simmer. Taste and season. Turn off heat, add cheese if you like, and serve at once.
In addition to the dish illustrated above, here are some favorite combinations that work with the formula:
Garlic+Crushed tomatoes+White beans+Arugula+Romano
Shallots+Tomato paste+Fennel+White wine+Tuna+Fresh basil