Easy Pasta


The meeting ran late and now you're late to pick up your daughter from the sitter, your son has to get to soccer practice, the dog has to go to the vet's and Dad is hungry after a business trip. How are you going to get something for dinner?

No problem. If you've got pasta, you've got a meal. A pot of boiling water, a handful of ingredients -- and no more than 30 minutes later, you can deliver a hit.

"I think pasta makes you feel good," said Michele Urvater, author of "Monday to Friday Pasta" (Workman, $12.95 paperback) -- hailed as "the consummate book for the harried cook."

"It's a very basic food," Ms. Urvater said. Plus, "pasta is universally loved by children. You can do a quick meal that appeals to the whole family."

And, with vegetable-based sauces, you can be sure you're serving something healthful. Pasta has significant amounts of complex carbohydrates and adds protein and fiber to a diet.

The ease and versatility of pasta dishes are no secret to chefs, who often whip up a pasta dish to feed themselves or their staff.

"That's how I eat at home all the time," said Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, executive chef at Foster's in Fells Point. "I'm pretty nutrition-conscious. I like vegetables a lot and I like a small amount of meat or fish. Pasta's the perfect way to combine them."

At the Milton Inn in Sparks, it may be a dishwasher who combines vegetables and herbs from the country restaurant's garden, throws in some rock shrimp and tosses it over pasta to feed the staff for lunch one day, said David Rudie, executive chef. Pasta pleases everyone. "It's cheap, it's fun, it's very popular."

Mark Hofmann, chef at Due in Owings Mills, was just "messing around," making something for himself for dinner, when he created his signature Penne Pasta with Peas and Prosciutto in Cream Sauce, a dish he now features at cooking demonstrations.

"It's very easy to do at home," he said. "You can have all the ingredients in the refrigerator and put them together in 10 minutes. All you have to do is put the pasta on. You can even put it in the fridge and have it as leftovers. I probably shouldn't say this, but I've even eaten it cold the next day."

At Sisson's, executive chef Bill Aydlett turns his saute cooks loose to create their own pasta specials for diners. "I let the guys come up with their own pasta du jour," he said. "A lot of it's tomatoes, fresh herbs, whatever's fresh in the market."

"We just had spaghetti the other night," said Mark Henry, chef-owner, with his wife Barbara, of the Chester River Inn in Chestertown. "It was our only day off and we decided to stay home." Barbara prepared the sauce, he said, using sausage in a tomato base. But he also uses pasta in the restaurant. "We use it as a side dish or accompaniment, as opposed to potatoes or rice," he said.

Here's a collection of quick and easy pasta recipes from area chefs and from Ms. Urvater's book. None has more than 10 ingredients and none takes more than about half an hour to prepare.

The first recipe is from Ms. Gulliksen. "We mix pasta and beans a lot," she said.

Pasta with vegetables and beans

Serves 4

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 medium red onion, chopped

8 mushrooms, sliced

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1 14-ounce can cannellini beans (see note)

1/2 pound pasta, cooked

Toss vegetables together with oil and sear in a very hot skillet for 5 to 10 minutes, until vegetables are tender.

In a large bowl, combine vegetables, vinegar, beans and pasta.

Place in a serving dish and top with Parmesan cheese. Serve warm or cold.

Note: To use other canned beans (kidney or black), place in a strainer and rinse; drain well.

The next recipe is from Mr. Rudie. "What makes this simple dish so appealing and flavorful is the use of the freshest available ingredients," he said. He suggested using sun-dried tomatoes when local tomatoes aren't in season.

Pasta with shrimp, basil and tomatoes

Serves 4

8 ounces uncooked linguine

2 to 3 garden-ripe tomatoes, diced

2 to 4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 pound fresh rock shrimp

12 fresh basil leaves, finely sliced

5 ounces extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

basil leaves, for garnish

Cook pasta in boiling water until tender, 5 to 8 minutes.

Heat a large saute pan, add 1 ounce of olive oil.

Cook shrimp 2 to 3 minutes

over high heat, add garlic and cook about 1 to 2 minutes more. Add tomatoes and basil, let simmer for about 5 minutes, remove from heat and add remainder of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.

Drain pasta, toss with sauce and serve, garnished with basil leaves.

The next recipe is from Mr. Hofmann. "It has very few ingredients and when they all come together, they work really well," he said.

Penne pasta with peas, peppers and prosciutto

Serves 6

3 red bell peppers

2 tablespoons butter

6 ounces prosciutto, diced

1 cup tiny frozen peas, thawed

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 pound uncooked penne pasta

couple of turns of a pepper mill, or 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

Roast, peel, seed and de-rib peppers, cut into thin strips. (You can buy roasted peppers in a jar; try the gourmet or Italian sections of grocery stores.)

In a large saute pan, melt the butter and saute the peppers, prosciutto and peas for 1 to 2 minutes. Add cream, cook until liquid is reduced by half. Add pepper and basil. Lightly stir in Parmesan cheese.

Drain pasta, add to sauce, toss and serve.

Farfalle with tomatoes, olives, shrimp and spinach pesto

Serves 2

2 pounds cooked farfalle (bow-tie shapes)

24 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (see note)

4 large, fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic

2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil

2 tablespoons fresh chopped oregano

1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted, chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Asiago-spinach pesto, for garnish (recipe follows)

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Saute shrimp in olive oil with garlic, tomatoes, herbs and olives. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat through gently, 2 to 3 minutes.

To serve: Place pasta on plate, top with tomato sauce, then top sauce with a dollop of pesto.

Asiago-spinach pesto

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup pecans or walnuts

1/2 pound spinach, cleaned, thick stems removed

1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese

1 tablespoon garlic, fresh

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine all items except the olive oil, one at a time, in the bowl of a food processor. Process while slowly adding olive oil. Keep at room temperature until serving.

This recipe is from Mr. Henry.

Soba salad with grilled prawns and Thai vinaigrette

Serves 8

1 pound soba, cooked and tossed

with a little oil, then chilled

2 pounds of prawns (large shrimp) peeled and deveined, tossed with peanut oil and garlic and grilled or broiled until firm

1 bunch scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces, tossed with peanut oil and garlic, grilled or broiled for about 10 seconds

1/2 cup Thai vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1 medium carrot, grated or fine julienne

1 medium daikon radish, grated or fine julienne

4 oranges, sectioned

4 cups mixed greens

1 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

1 bunch chives, cut in 1/2 -inch pieces

Toss greens with 1 tablespoon of Thai vinaigrette and place on plates, spreading to the sides. Mix the chilled soba noodles, carrot, daikon radish, orange sections, sesame seeds and the remaining Thai vinaigrette with the warm prawns and scallions. Place in the center of the greens and sprinkle with chives.

Note: Soba is an Oriental noodle made from buckwheat, available in most Oriental grocery stores or in the gourmet section of supermarkets.

Thai vinaigrette

Makes about 1/2 cup

2 tablespoons chili oil

4 ounces roasted peanut oil or a light sesame oil

3 ounces tamari (see note)

3 ounces rice vinegar (seasoned)

1 clove of garlic

Place all ingredients in blender and process until smooth.

Note: Tamari is a form of soy sauce that contains no wheat. It is also found in the Oriental sections of most supermarkets. One brand name is SAN-J.

And this last recipe is from Ms. Urvater's book, "Monday to Friday Pasta."

Pasta d'Atunno

Serves 4 to 6

1 onion

2 red bell peppers

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, preferably shiitake or wild mushrooms

3/4 pound medium-size shells

1/2 pound fresh green beans

10 fresh sage leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup dry goat cheese, crumbled (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.

While water is heating, peel and finely chop onion. Core, seed and chop red peppers. Wipe mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel, remove stems (reserve them for another use), and thinly slice caps.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook until it is tender but still firm to the bite, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in onion and peppers, cover, reduce heat. Simmer until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. While this is cooking, trim green beans and cut them into 1/2 -inch pieces. Rinse, pat dry and mince the sage leaves.

Add chicken broth, mushrooms, green beans and sage to the skillet. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain pasta and portion it out. Ladle some of the vegetables and sauce over each portion, and crumble the goat cheese on top, if desired. Serve immediately.

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