There are times when I don’t have a clue what I am having for dinner, beyond that it is pasta. I choose the noodle type by how much time I have, put the water on to boil, and only then do I decide what the sauce will be.
Note: I deliberately present this dish as a concept, rather than a recipe. Recipes take a long time to follow, and you often don’t have the exact ingredients cited in the recipe. You will make more real-food meals at home if you have concepts stored in your memory, and can work with the ingredients you have on hand.
I usually start with onion and garlic. Mushrooms almost always make an appearance. Those go into the pan with a little olive or vegetable oil and saute for a few minutes while you choose and gather the other ingredients. This time I added chopped red pepper, asparagus pieces, chopped fresh tomato, dried basil and crushed fennel seed. Between 1½ and 2 cups of combined raw vegetables per serving works well.
There are three stages for this quick sauce. The vegetables that take a little longer to cook are sauteed for two or three minutes. Then I add the vegetables like asparagus or fresh tomato that require little cooking, along with a small amount of liquid, usually stock, about ¼-½ cup. The amount of stock varies by the vegetables you use, and how wet or dry you want your final pasta.I also put in dried herbs at this point.
The final step is to add thickener and/or more flavor. This sauce is thickened with about 1 tablespoon of light cream cheese, stirred until it melts and blends with the sauce. I didn’t add any extra flavor, as I was planning to use Parmesan cheese. Once the thickener and any extra flavor has had a minute or two to blend with the other ingredients, add the pasta and stir. Hint: When I drain the pasta in the sink, I always place a small bowl under the colander to catch a bit of the pasta liquid. If the sauce is too thick, this liquid makes an excellent thinner.
Good melting cheese can be used to thicken the sauce (Parmesan cheese is best added once the pan is off the heat). You can also add about ¼ cup of milk with ½ tablespoon of flour for a creamy sauce. A non-creamy sauce can be thickened by boiling down the stock, though you will want to start with more stock, and reduce the sauce (boil off some of the water to concentrate the flavor and slightly thicken the sauce) before you add the short-cooking vegetables. If you want a bit of tomato flavor, add a tablespoon of tomato paste which will thicken and flavor.
And for something completely different, skip the stock and add about a cup of canned, diced tomatoes. If you want a thicker sauce (sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t — depends on my mood) add a tablespoon of tomato paste.
Extra flavor can be a splash of red or white wine, balsamic vinegar, orange or lemon juice, hot sauce, your favorite vinaigrette salad dressing … there are no rules. I will often add extra flavor with toppings. For example, I could have made this exact sauce with extra garlic, and added feta cheese, chopped cucumber and black olives to give it a Greek twist.
You can also saute meat with the first vegetables. Try ground beef, a chopped pork chop or tenderloin, sliced or chopped chicken, a lamb chop. Tofu works well, too, though I prefer to brown tofu until it is quite crisp, so I would brown the tofu before adding the vegetables to be sauteed. Or add cooked, leftover meat in the final stage, simmering it just long enough to heat. Seafood can usually be added in the final simmering step. Large, peeled shrimp cooks in 2-3 minutes.
Note: Though I am a dedicated fan of whole wheat in most foods, the only whole wheat pasta I have enjoyed is my homemade version. Full disclosure: I actually prefer my homemade pasta made with semolina and/or unbleached flour. Freely admitting this preference may bring out the food police, but I don’t care. If I had to eat only whole wheat pasta, I would lose a valuable component in my kitchen. Pasta is delicious, cheap and is good food. When you top it with plenty of fresh vegetables in a homemade sauce, you have real food.