Pasta Perfect: Easy Ideas to Please (Almost) Anyone

July 10, 2008 at 2:10 am 5 comments

When it comes to options, I’m not sure there’s any meal category that can beat pasta. The varied shapes, toppings — and even the grains from which pasta can be made — provide limitless combinations.

If you’re vegetarian (or cooking for one), you can find a wide variety of pasta dishes. If you’re allergic to wheat products, you can find pasta made from other grains — rice, quinoa, soy flour, and more. If you hate tomatoes, no problem: you can sauce your noodles with countless other options.

Pasta dinners were a favorite when my kids were growing up because they provided a rare opportunity to please everyone — and use up leftovers in the fridge. I would cook a large pot of linguine (or fettucine, or spaghetti), and then chop various toppings to pile in bowls: tomato, onion, fresh basil, bell peppers, fresh spinach, sugar snap peas, black olives, pepperoni (or leftover chicken, Italian sausage, turkey), mushrooms, and as much cheese as I could grate. Once the pasta was cooked and drained, the girls piled on whatever they wanted (I did stipulate that they had to include at least one vegetable!), and enjoyed as much as they wanted. And any leftovers were perfect for workday or weekend lunches.

Here are three recipes, using various pasta shapes, that showcase the flexibility and ease of a pasta dinner. The only real “rules” in these recipes have to do with cooking the pasta. Use plenty of water and follow package instructions for timing to end up with tender pasta that’s perfect with any toppings you choose.

Pasta and Bell Pepper Ziti

8 ounces ziti or other tubular pasta such as penne
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 Italian sausages (optional: turkey sausage)
2 cups chopped onion
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional: 1/2 cup chicken broth)
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with juices
Salt, pepper, oregano and/or basil, to taste
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water according to package directions. Stir occasionally. When done, drain in colander, then return to pot.

While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage and saute until brown (about 5 minutes), breaking up with a fork as it cooks. Add onions and bell peppers and saute for another 5 minutes. Stir in wine or broth and boil for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes (and juices), salt and pepper, and herbs. Reduce heat to medium and cover skillet. Simmer sauce until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add sauce to pasta in pot and toss to combine. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve.

Greek Orzo

Orzo is a rice-shaped pasta that kids seem to love. You can find it in most grocery stores.

1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon fresh)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup orzo
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled

In a large skillet, saute onions and garlic over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until tender. Add tomatoes and juice from can. Stir in oregano and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until most of the juices from the tomatoes have evaporated.

Meanwhile, cook orzo according to package directions. When done, drain orzo and add to tomatoes in pan. Stir in feta cheese and cook for 1 minute, or until cheese melts. (There are many options for this dish. If you prefer basil, use it in place of the oregano. If you like a little heat, add some red pepper flakes. Some sliced black olives or leftover chicken would also work well.)

Pasta with Cheese Sauce

1 pound spagetti, fettucine, or linguine
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound Swiss cheese, cut in 1/2″ cubes
1/4 pound Fontina or provolone cheese, cut in 1/2″ cubes
1 cup Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, rosemary, or thyme

In a large pot, bring water and salt to a boil. Add oil and pasta. Return to boil and cook pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, toss all cheeses in a large bowl with flour. Heat butter and half-and-half until butter melts. Gradually stir in cheeses and cook over medium heat until sauce is smooth. Add chopped herb and stir to blend. Pour sauce over cooked pasta and toss quickly to coat. Optional: Just before serving, toss with an additional 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.


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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Theresa  |  July 10, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Hi Mary,

    These all sound so good. I’ve never had orzo before. Can’t wait to try it.


  • 2. Judy Ferril  |  July 10, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Hi Mary,

    Love the pasta ideas. You are right – it is a food that gives the cook so many options.

    Take care,

  • 3. Dorothy Massey  |  July 10, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    These are great recipes. I love pasta, so I’ll try them out. I’ve never heard of ziti or orzo though. Perhaps they’re not easily available in the UK. I’ll look out for them . Your site is excellent, Mary.

  • 4. Carma Dutra  |  July 10, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Hi Mary,
    I don’t need a cookbook. I just need to come to your blog for wonderful recipes. Very good.


  • 5. Lisa Kirby  |  July 14, 2008 at 3:33 am

    Hi Mary,

    The Pasta and Bell Pepper Ziti sounds delicious. I was just recently telling my family that I used to hate pasta but it’s one of my favorites now. It’s strange how tastes change through the years. I can’t wait for more recipes.

    Lisa Kirby

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