Mama mia! Make Mom a light, delicious pasta dinner

Posted Online: May 06, 2014, 11:43 am
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By JeanMarie Brownson
I work full time in the food business. For more than three decades, my days have centered on food — from wrangling recipes and groceries, to ingredient research, to tastings in a test kitchen. So when the kids ask what I want for Mother's Day, the answer is simple: Cook for me.

Nothing exotic, I tell them, and if you search the pantry and freezer, you won't even need to shop. Start with pasta. Skip the bottled red sauce (reminds me too much of my work). Keep things healthy. Use your imagination.

Over the years, my now-grown children have created quite an array of simple pasta meals concocted from ingredients on hand. When the herb garden flourishes, things taste even brighter.

First, I suggest from the sidelines, pair the pasta shape to complement the sauce/toppings. Pick hollow pasta such as rigatoni for saucy toppings such as cream sauces or marinara. Choose flat pastas, such as linguine and fettuccine, for sauteed or chunky toppings such as diced vegetables, shredded meats or fish. Coordinate the size of the pasta with the size of the add-ins; tiny orzo goes well with cooked peas, and penne pairs nicely with broccoli florets.

We usually have some type of fully cooked protein in the fridge or freezer that lends itself to a speedy meal. These treasures, such as fully cooked sausages, require little more than heating and cutting to mix with pasta. A piece of cooked pot roast or pork shoulder can be shredded and mixed with marinara sauce for a very simple rendition of a homemade ragu we enjoy over wide egg noodles.

Frozen cooked shrimp proves easy for all: An overnight thaw in the fridge takes no skill. To serve, I gently advise a saute of sweet onion and fresh garlic, before wilting in fresh baby spinach, the thawed shrimp and cooked "fancy" pasta (such as rotini or orecchiette).

Here are three of our family's go-to pasta recipes. The first, penne with broccoli, is a gussied-up variation of the pasta with broccoli and cheese I have made my son nearly every week of his life. His grown-up version features plenty of fresh garlic, raisins, nuts and a generous dash of hot flakes. Everyone in our house loves tuna. My daughter pairs good-quality canned tuna with toothsome bucatini pasta (long, fat strands with a hole running down the length) and plenty of fresh lemon and parsley. She adds the olives and capers for me. Using dried mushrooms may not be my kid's cup of tea, but since I enjoy them, they'll soak a few to saute with sausage and vegetables for serving over tender wide pasta.

With minimal supervision, the recipes can be made by young teens on up. Any mother would be proud to be served them (on a pretty plate please). The only caveat when the kids cook: Clean up when you're done!

Make it easy

Ever the mothering mother, I have even more tips:

— Have all your ingredients and cooking equipment ready before you start.

— Use a large pot to boil the water; salt the pasta water well (it should taste like the sea) for even cooking and final flavor.

— Balance the quantity of sauce or toppings to pasta — resist the urge to add too much pasta. A general guideline for 3 or 4 servings: 2 cups tomato or cream sauce or 4 cups chunky toppings to 8 ounces of uncooked pasta.

— Use good-tasting olive oil, it's part of the final flavor of the dish.

— For the toppings or sauce, work in a nonstick pan for easy cleanup.

— The toppings can be assembled 30 minutes in advance, but make sure everyone is ready for dinner before you start cooking the pasta.

— Test the pasta for doneness by tasting a piece; it should be toothsome but tender.

— Have the colander ready in the sink for draining the pasta.

More toppings
Here are some more combinations to toss with cooked pasta:

— Cooked green vegetables such as sauteed zucchini or diced green beans, feta chunks and pitted Kalamata.

— Canned chick peas, diced bottled roasted peppers and shredded cheese.

— Diced peppered salami, sauteed radicchio and little lumps of cream cheese.

— Toasted breadcrumbs, nuts, garlic and hot pepper flakes.

— Small shrimp, sauteed onions and baby kale or spinach.

— Halved cherry tomatoes with refrigerated pesto.

— Shredded roast chicken, spicy salsa and diced queso fresco.

— Diced ham, cooked peas and butter and cheese.

Penne with broccoli, raisins and nuts
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large (10 ounces) sweet onion, quartered, thinly sliced
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup nuts, such as slivered almonds, pecans or cashews
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 broccoli crowns, about 13 ounces total, ends trimmed, stalks peeled
1/2 pound whole-wheat penne pasta

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion; cook, stirring often, until richly golden and tender, 6-8 minutes. Stir in raisins, nuts, garlic, salt and pepper flakes. Remove from heat.
Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli; cook until fork-tender, 3-5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a cutting board. Now add the pasta to the boiling water; cook until al dente, 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the broccoli into 1-inch pieces; add to the skillet. Scoop about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water into the skillet. Drain the pasta; put into large bowl. Turn the skillet to high; heat everything to very hot, then stir into the pasta. Toss to mix.

Nutrition information per serving: 561 calories, 21 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 87 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein, 322 mg sodium, 10 g fiber

Bucatini with lemon, tuna and capers
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
You can use either oil-packed or water-packed tuna here. Or substitute 1 pound cooked small shrimp or 3 cups shredded cooked chicken.
1/2 cup coarse breadcrumbs or panko crumbs
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, cored, diced
1/2 large lemon
1/2 cup sliced or chopped pitted manzanilla, Kalamata or Castelvetrano olives
2 tablespoons drained capers, optional
1/2 pound bucatini or spaghetti
2 cans (12 ounces each) solid albacore tuna, drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper

Place breadcrumbs in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Toast, stirring constantly (do not walk away), until crisp and golden, 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.
Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add red pepper; cook until tender, 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat. Grate the zest of the lemon into the peppers, then squeeze in the lemon juice. Stir in olives and capers.
Add the pasta to the boiling water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Drain well.
Turn the heat on under the skillet; add the tuna, parsley and black pepper to taste. Heat briefly, breaking tuna into large chunks. Stir in hot pasta. Serve sprinkled generously with the crisp breadcrumbs.

Nutrition information per serving: 561 calories, 19 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 55 g carbohydrates, 43 g protein, 567 mg sodium, 4 g fiber


Local events heading

  Today is Thursday, Oct. 2, the 275th day of 2014. There are 90 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The ladies have adopted the fashion of wearing representations of insects in the flowers on their bonnets. Some look very natural.
1889 -- 125 years ago: T.F. Cary, former Rock Island alderman, has accepted a position as salesman for a Chicago wallpaper house and plans to move to that city.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Work on the new telephone building on 18th Street between 6th and 7th avenues is progressing rapidly.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Rock Island's new theater at 3rd Avenue and 19th Street will have a name significant of its location. The "Rocket" is scheduled to open Thanksgiving Day.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Two of Rock Island's newest water towers were vandalized last night, including the one at 38th Street and 31st Avenue, where police took five Moline boys into custody about 9 p.m..
1989 -- 25 years ago: Some of us who live in the Quad-Cities take the Mississippi River for granted, or at least we used to. But the river is not taken for granted by our visitors. And most Quad-Citians are realizing the importance of the river to this area as increased emphasis is placed on tourism.

(More History)