Moving to Italy in 1989 was life-changing for me in so many ways, but one of the biggest revelations I had was that pasta came in different shapes and sizes and could be combined with things other than tomato sauce. Who knew?
Growing up, my mom made spaghetti once a week and lasagna once a year, both served with a delicious slow-cooked tomato-based marinara sauce. But now I was introduced to pasta shapes like farfalle, orzo, penne, rigatoni, fusilli, and more. It was a heady time!
Italians know how to wrap a meal around pasta like no one else, and I love the ease and versatility of noodles as a vehicle for a variety of ingredients and styles. There are so many gluten-free pasta options now, too, made out of rice, quinoa, corn, spelt, flax seed, and other non-wheat options, that even the wheat-sensitive among us can still enjoy noodles.
Here are some easy ideas to use for your next pasta dinner. Start with boiling water and cook pasta al dente. Drain and rinse, then add to these ingredients.
Pasta al tonno: Use a pasta shape like penne (a hollow tube) or rigatoni (ridged penne). Drain and break apart a can of tuna fish (preferably sustainably-caught, white albacore packed in water). Drain pasta and toss with tuna, high-quality olive oil, sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper, drained capers, diced fresh tomatoes, and shreds of fresh basil leaves.
Pasta con ceci: I like to use fusilli with chickpeas, olive oil, and diced garlic, sea salt, and cracked pepper.
Pasta con pesto: Save a 1/2 cup of the pasta-boiling water to mix together with the pasta and pesto. Penne, rotini, or other hollow pasta shapes are always great to hold onto and deliver the savoriness of pesto. Here are some easy and creative pesto recipes.
Pasta con formaggi: Otherwise known as macaroni and cheese, think beyond the blandness of simply cheese and noodles and add in vegetables, meats, and even some marinara sauce. The other night I tossed together farfalle (bowtie) pasta with the leftover chicken and vegetables from a crockpot stew in a pot with a 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese. It was a delicious disguise for leftovers!
Pasta al forno (baked): For lasagna, you layer noodles with sauce, meats, veggies, and cheese and then bake it all together. Think out of the box: you can use this technique with leftover rotisserie chicken, fresh spinach, enchilada sauce, and goat cheese stuffed into large pasta shells or mixed around with penne and topped with cheese before baking at 325 F.
Vermicelli with stir-fry: I pick up nests of dried rice noodles from the Asian grocery store and love to serve one with a stir-fry of tofu, zucchini, squash, bell pepper, and onion marinated in Annie Chung’s Sweet Chili Sauce. These skinny noodles cook in about 3 minutes, so keep your eye on them.
Pasta with fresh tomato sauce: Not every tomato sauce needs to be slow-cooked. A quick tomato sauce can be put together in a shallow saucepan with fresh or canned diced tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in the pan and saute chopped garlic and onions; add the tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes or so. Stir in fresh basil shreds and serve over linguini.
Pasta con aglio e olio: Italians love simplicity in their food that allows the purity of the flavors to shine through. A favorite dish on many menus is this pasta with garlic and olive oil. Dress cooked pasta in high quality olive oil and freshly chopped raw garlic, sea salt, and pepper. Yum!