The Main Menu: Perfectly pleasing pasta

What’s for dinner? A question like this asked at the witching hour – anywhere from 5:00 pm and 6:30 pm when hunger is sharp and tempers are frayed – can cause despair. The cook may frantically search for take-out telephone numbers, or take a refrigerator inventory.

If you have some basic ingredients, you can be a star. Fortunately pasta dishes are universally popular. The versatility of the sauces meets the demands of carnivores, vegetarians, and limited budgets. Inventive sauces can be winners for the frazzled cook who needs dinner ready in less than thirty minutes. The following recipes have saved me!

Basic Ingredients:
Extra virgin olive oil
Cooking Onions
Mushrooms (optional)
Rapini, broccoli or spinach
Garlic (preferably local, not Chinese)
28 oz/ 796 mL) can diced tomatoes
Dried herbs such as basil, oregano, tarragon and thyme
Salt and fresh black pepper
Pasta or if you prefer, couscous, rice, barley
Canned tuna, bacon or ham (optional)
Cheese: Parmesan, Asiago or Cheddar (optional)

Pasta Sauce with Mediterranean Flavours
The base for this recipe is a homemade tomato sauce. If you are in a pinch, you can use bottled tomato sauce, but jazz it up with the additional ingredients. Rotini or penne pasta are both good choices for this sauce although you can substitute a different pasta or grain if you wish. This sauce makes a wonderful topping for pizza.

Basic Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup (50 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz/796 mL) diced tomatoes
1 can (5 oz/142 mL) tomato paste
1/4 cup (50 mL) dry red or white wine or chicken stock
1 tsp (5 mL) granulated sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) basil
1/2 tsp (2 mL) thyme
1/2 tsp (2 ml) salt
1/4 tsp (1 mL) fresh black pepper
6-8 strips cooked bacon, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (125 mL) pitted olives, sliced
1/4 cup (50 mL) capers
generous pinch of hot pepper flakes or hot sauce
1 can (6 oz/ 130 g) tuna packed in water
1/2 lb (250 g) Italian sausage, cooked and sliced
1 cup (250 mL) freshly grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

In large saucepan heat oil over medium-high heat. Stir in onion, garlic and leeks. Cook covered for five minutes or until onions are softened. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, sugar, basil, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring sauce to the boil; reduce heat to simmer and stir in bacon, olives, capers and hot pepper sauce. Simmer about 15 minutes. Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Drain then ladle pasta into serving bowls and top with a generous spoonful of sauce. Accompany with a bowl of grated cheese. Note: If you wish additional protein the tuna or sausage could be added.
Winter Green Pasta Sauce
If you are seeking ideas for the dinner menu, check out the vegetable aisle in the grocery store. What looks appealing, fresh and vibrant could set your taste buds tinkling. This is a creative way of incorporating more vegetables and flavour into our vitamin and fibre starved diet.

1 bunch, rapini, washed
1 bag or bunch fresh spinach, washed
1/4 cup (50 mL) extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, washed and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (250 mL) sliced mushrooms
2 tsp (10 mL) dried tarragon
1/2 cup (125 mL) chicken stock or white wine
1/2 cup (125 mL) whipping cream
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1/4 tsp (1 ml) fresh black pepper
Parmesan, cheddar or Asiago cheese

You will need two large saucepans, one for the sauce and one for the pasta. Fill pasta pot with salted water and bring to boil. Meanwhile, chop the tough ends of the rapini and discard. Coarsley chop and add rapini to large saucepan with about 1/2 cup (125 mL) water. Arrange spinach on top. Bring to boil and cook about two minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle press out extra moisture and discard. Coarsely chop rapini and spinach. Set aside. Cook pasta in simmering water. In the vegetable saucepan, heat oil over medium- high and cook leeks, garlic and mushrooms covered about five minutes or until vegetables are softened. Stir in tarragon, rapini and spinach. Cook stirring about one minute. Stir in chicken stock, whipping cream, salt and pepper. Cook stirring about two minutes. Drain pasta and toss with winter vegetable sauce. Serve with cheese.

Jan Main is an author, cooking instructor and caterer.

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