The Everyday Chef: Quick Weeknight Pasta Sauces

Alex Caspero, MA, RD, CLT
Everyday Chef, Fruits & Veggies—More Matters

Alex Caspero, Everyday Chef, Fruits & Veggies-More Matters

Growing up in an Italian household meant that pasta was on the menu 3-4 times per week. Endless bowls of noodles was my favorite food back then and is my go-to dinner choice even today. To make pasta exciting, seasonal, and healthier, I make sure that no matter what type of pasta I’m serving, I always include at least a serving of vegetables along with it. This cooking strategy allows me to enjoy a larger portion of pasta whether I’m eating it as a main or side dish.

Healthy Pasta Tip: Try to stick to a 1:1 ratio when creating pasta recipes—one cup of pasta to one cup of vegetables.

While I’ve experimented a lot over the years, these are the three pasta combinations that I keep coming back to over and over again. In almost the same time that you can warm up a jar of pasta sauce, you can make these quick recipes. With the exception of the tomatoes, you can use fresh or frozen vegetables in all of these dishes. If asparagus is hard to find, feel free to substitute with artichoke hearts or green peas.

Lastly, in all of these dishes I direct you to reserve the pasta water after draining the pasta. This pasta water is different from plain water and a secret ingredient in creating luscious sauces without adding additional cream, butter or oil. I usually ladle a cup or two of the pasta water into a mug before draining my pasta. The starches in the pasta water will help the sauce cling to the noodles, increasing the flavor in each bite.

Each recipe below will pair with one-pound of cooked pasta noodles. I have included suggested pasta shapes in each of the recipes, but feel free to substitute with what you have on hand.

Not in the mood for pasta? These sauces can be used to top chicken, fish, brown rice, quinoa or crostini. For a quick appetizer, I like to top toasted crostini with a dollop of the fresh tomato and basil sauce and drizzle with balsamic reduction. I like to think of it as my winter take on summery bruschetta.

My Recipes

Spinach with Olive Oil and Garlic 
Serves 4
Pasta suggestions: Angel Hair, Spaghetti, Fettuccini

2 tsp. oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups torn spinach leaves
salt/freshly ground pepper/red pepper flakes
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
reserved ½ cup pasta water.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and stir in the garlic cloves for 30 seconds to 1 minute until fragrant. Take care not to burn the garlic.  Add in the spinach leaves and cook until just wilted, 2-3 minutes.

Add in the cooked pasta and ¼ cup reserved pasta water along with a pinch of salt and pepper of choice. Cook for an additional minute and stir in Parmesan cheese (optional). If sauce is too thick, add a bit more of the reserved pasta water to thin.

Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce
Serves 4
Pasta Suggestions: Ziti, Penne, Orzo
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 pints cherry tomatoes, rinsed and drained
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup basil leaves, chiffonade
½ cup reserved pasta water

Bring a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, cherry tomatoes, garlic cloves and pinch salt/pepper and let cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want the cherry tomatoes to “burst” so that they fall apart when stirred. If any whole tomatoes are left, gently burst them with the back of a wooden spoon. The mixture should resemble a chunky tomato sauce.

Add in the cooked pasta and ¼ cup reserved pasta water. Stir together and add in the basil. Season to taste with salt/pepper and serve immediately.

Asparagus with Ricotta and Lemon
Serves 4
Pasta suggestions: Gemelli, Rigatoni, Cavatelli, Penne

2 tsp. olive oil
2 pounds asparagus, cut into 1- inch pieces
1 1/2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 cup reserved pasta water
2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)

Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil and asparagus, stirring occasionally until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Add cooked pasta, ricotta, lemon zest, lemon juice, and ½ cup reserved pasta water. Stir all ingredients together and season to taste with salt/pepper. If sauce is too thick, add more pasta water. The ricotta will turn into a creamy sauce that coats the noodles.

Garnish with Parmesan cheese (optional) and serve immediately.

Photo Credit: Alex Caspero

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