Throw-together pastas do it all Dinner: For quick weekday meals that satisfy everyone, all you need are a little creative elan and ingredients that are almost always on standby in the pantry or refrigerator.

June 10, 1998|By Peter Hellman | Peter Hellman,COOKING LIGHT

I'm just getting home from work at 6:15 on a weekday evening. My job is to get the family dinner on the table at 7 o'clock. Moreover, I have to come up with something to satisfy all four of us.

Kate, age 11, is a vegetarian who, as she puts it, "won't eat anything that has a face." Jake, at 15, seems to wake up taller every morning and won't be satisfied with anything dainty. My wife, Susan, and I prefer that the meal be reasonably healthful and have a "grown-up" flair.

The last-minute solution to such a dilemma in our house, and probably in yours, is usually a big bowl of pasta. But then what? Hours of tending a slow, burbling pot on the stove? If my thoughts ever drifted in that traditional direction, they haven't since reading Marcella Hazan, dean of Italian cookbook writers, who acknowledges in "Marcella's Italian Kitchen" (Random, 1995) that when pasta dinners come to mind, we all tend to retain the "nostalgic image of a portly, grandmotherly woman" endlessly stirring a sauce.

"Fortunately," she quickly adds, "it is only a fantasy." Of the thousands of ways to augment pasta, Hazan points out, only a few take more than 15 to 20 minutes.

The fastest of all, I've happily discovered, are the surprising variety of throw-together pasta toppings that are amenable to lightning-fast assembly using ingredients almost always on standby in the pantry or refrigerator.

Add a little creative elan and impulse, and you've got memorable meal-savers. My choice for tonight is a simple mix of perfect no-cook companions: Pasta With Asiago Cheese and Spinach, featuring emerald-green spinach and flecks of intensely red sun-dried tomatoes bathed in the subtle sheen of olive oil.

Not only is this quick toss bursting with color, it's also ready by the time the pasta is al dente. And it's not dull. Asiago, a cow's-milk cheese that is creamy and mild when young but gains sharpness as it ages into a grating cheese, adds a kick, which is eased by a scraping of Parmesan cheese. A final touch of savor comes from garlic. At dinner's end, the pasta bowl is empty and our plates are all clean.

Because these throw-together pastas require no separately prepared sauce, they've become a regular feature in our household. But there are a couple of caveats.

First, you must find and stock all the right ingredients. Impossible? Until a few years ago, and in some locations, perhaps. But today, stocking a new Italian pantry is as easy as a little forethought.

Almost any supermarket or gourmet-food shop carries everything you will need: anchovy paste, balsamic vinegar, capers, chicken broth, clam juice, olive oil, olives, plum tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and, of course, dried pasta in all its varieties.

Throw in just a few ingredients from the fridge - even if it's only a generous handful of chopped parsley or basil leaves - and these tosses become almost magically fresh. Add flash-boiled shrimp and scallops, and you have a dish dressed well enough for company.

Caveat No. 2: While it's always wise to buy the best quality you can afford, that policy becomes doubly important when you're ++ combining ingredients whose flavors aren't inhibited by dominating sauces. Quality will make itself known. Extra-virgin olive oil, for example, is worth the cost. And one taste of a dark, piquant-sweet, extra-aged version of balsamic vinegar will convince you that the good stuff is worth the price.

Another worthy investment in pasta basics is a wedge of real Parmesan cheese, ideally Parmigiano-Reggiano. Double-wrapped in foil and refrigerated, it will retain its nutty flavor for many weeks. Because the ingredients in these recipes are uncooked, by the way, they'll stay hotter if you toss them with the pasta in a prewarmed bowl. I like to drain my boiling pasta water into the bowl. After a minute or two, the bowl will be piping hot.

Filling and comforting, pasta is soul food for me. Recently, as I was about to head to the airport for a trans-Atlantic flight, I asked Susan if she'd cook a fast pasta dish. She chose Farfalle With Red Caesar Dressing. A squeeze of anchovy paste and a splash of Worcestershire sauce added an offbeat but intriguing flavor that was new to us. As usual, the bowl was empty when I left for the airport.

Contentedly en route, I recalled Diane Seed's comment in "The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces" (Ten Speed Press, 1987), a handy book for all pasta addicts. "Italians," she writes, "eat pasta every day, and they are not a people amused by monotony."

The Rigatoni Caprese above is based on the classic salad of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil that hails from the island of Capri - hence the name Caprese.

Pasta With Arugula and Shaved Parmesan

Makes servings

2 1/4 cups chopped plum tomato

1/4 cup chopped, pitted kalamata olives

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 cups hot cooked gemelli or fusilli (about 8 ounces uncooked pasta twists)

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