Quick! What's for supper?
Pasta's almost always a hit, but who's got time? You do -- if you can squeeze out 10 or 20 minutes.
Start with macaroni: It takes about 10 to 12 minutes to cook pasta al dente (tender, literally, "to the tooth") but you can have minutes if you choose thinner noodle varieties
such as spaghettini, vermicelli or angel hair.
While the pasta's cooking, take care of business in the topping department.
Easy accompaniments include:
* Stuff from the salad bar, stir-fried until just tender, then tossed with hot cooked noodles. (A dressier version for a gang of guests follows.)
* Canned chili. Heat it in the microwave, heap atop cooked noodles, then sprinkle on shredded Cheddar. (Better still, buy chili from a take-out.)
* Cooked frozen mixed vegetables. Toss with pasta elbows and dress with bottled salad dressing (warmed, if you prefer). Or choose a frozen blend-in sauce, which makes for a creamier pasta topping.
* Pesto is a lifesaver. Dress it up by including steamed fresh broccoli, then garnish with some toasted almonds or pine nuts.
But let's say you'd like to try something a bit more imaginative. Not taxing, but quick and tasty.
Try one of these. All amounts are approximate, so play around. There's very little that's formal about pasta.
Smoked salmon and shells: Buy a box of pasta shells. Also pick up a container of heavy cream and a few ounces of thinly sliced smoked salmon. You can also add a couple of shallots or scallions.
* Cook the pasta according to package directions.
* Peel and slice the shallots (thin) or scallions ( 1/2 -inch cuts). Saute in a little butter or oil until tender.
* In a small saucepan, heat enough cream to liberally coat the pasta. Drain the shallots or scallions and stir them into the cream along with the salmon, cut into bite-sized pieces. Season with little salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste. Toss with pasta and serve immediately.
Pasta fagioli: Italian comics have gotten plenty of mileage out of macaroni and beans, but so have pinch-pennies with big families. It's meatless, it's healthful and it's easy.
While you're cooking tube pasta (mostaccioli, elbows, etc.), chop and saute an onion and some minced garlic in a little olive oil. When the vegetables are tender, add a can of garbanzo beans (chick peas) and/or kidney beans along with their liquid. Reduce heat and warm through. Add to drained pasta with grated Romano or Parmesan, freshly ground black pepper, chopped parsley. Simple, and talk about carbo-loading!
Fajitas ziti: Choose between ready-to-cook fajitas mix (either beef or poultry with cut vegetables) or fajitas-cut strips of meat and marinated vegetables (usually available in meat cases).
Bring pasta water to a boil, add ziti and cook.
Meanwhile, saute fajitas fixings in a large frying pan with a little vegetable oil. When meat and veggies are just tender, mix with drained ziti. If you wish, top with mounds of guacamole and/or salsa and sprinklings of chopped cilantro.
Sausage and rigatoni: Nothing new, but quicker than most. While the water's coming to a boil, heat the broiler. Cut turkey sausages into chunks and poach in a saute pan filled with water until the meat's cooked through. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Run sausage chunks under a broiler to brown. Warm sauce (bottled or homemade). Drain pasta, top with sausage, drape with sauce.
Finally, if you're facing an unexpected crowd, here's a way to feed them gracefully.
Primavera pronto: For six to eight people, here's an easy meatless dinner.
* Pick up a pound of spaghetti, linguine or vermicelli. Then head for the salad bar. Choose an array of your favorite pre-cut fresh vegetables, dividing them into two containers: tender (celery, zucchini, bell peppers, sprouts) and dense (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots). It's best if you choose pieces approximately the same size. Buy about 24 ounces, or a little more.
* At home, bring a 6-quart pot of water for pasta to a full boil, salt if desired, then par-cook the hard veggies until just tender. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain and let water return to boiling. Add the pasta.
* Meanwhile, heat about 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil in a large saute pan until it's sizzling. Add tender vegetables along with 2 cloves minced garlic and/or 1 cup chopped onion (to taste) and stir-fry until just cooked through; stir in the pre-cooked dense vegetables, cooking until piping hot.
(If you wish, season with fresh minced herbs, salt and pepper.)
* Drain pasta when it's al dente (just tender). Toss pasta with vegetable mixture. For a saucier topping, spoon some of the cooking water over the mixture. Or add more olive oil or butter, bottled or homemade red sauce, or cheese sauce.
Top with freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.