Your Template for a Quick Pasta Dinner, 7 Delicious Ways

Your Template for a Quick Pasta Dinner, 7 Delicious Ways

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Katie Workman
Nov 4, 2015
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

You know what gives me enormous pleasure? Finding quick and easy recipes that serve me well time after time, and allow me to get dinner on the table for my family with a minimum of stress and effort. Then there is another level of joy in a recipe that serves as a template for an infinite number of meals that follow the same basic plan, but can result in dozens of versions of this delicious dinner.

Pasta is the perfect springboard for such a notion — it's inexpensive, always available, versatile, and easy to prepare. And with this simple recipe template, you will find yourself throwing together all kinds of fantastic pasta dinners, week after week, and weeknight dinner boredom will be but a distant memory.

20-Minute Pasta: The Basic Method

The following method is just the beginning in terms of how you will mix and match ingredients and create an infinite array of quick and easy pasta dinners. Here’s the drill:

  • To serve 4 to 6, start with 1 pound pasta, such as fettuccine.
  • Choose and cut up 1 pound of protein and 1 to 2 pounds of vegetables.
  • Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
  • Sauté some member of the onion family (onions, shallots, garlic, scallion bulbs) in a drizzle of oil in a large skillet.
  • Sear your protein (chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, tofu). Transfer it to a bowl, and keep it on the side.
  • Deglaze the skillet, which means pour in about 1/2 cup of liquid and scrape up flavorful bits from the bottom of the pan (maybe before the vegetables, maybe after; you judge).
  • Sauté your vegetables in the skillet, and while you are doing that ...
  • Cook the pasta in the boiling water.
  • And here’s the part that will make you feel like a genius: Before you drain the pasta, reserve about a cup of the cooking water. You will use this to toss together the pasta with the other ingredients, and the starch in the water (released by the pasta during the cooking process) will help the sauce come together, and bind it to the pasta itself.
  • Toss everything together with the pasta in the skillet (if it's big enough) or in a large bowl. Season with salt very lightly as you assemble your dish because the pasta cooking water contains salt, and taste as you go.
  • Some warm broth can also be added, or tomato sauce, for a saucier pasta. You can also add cheese or other seasonings at this point, and it’s always a good thing to finish with a pat of butter or a drizzle of good olive oil for silkiness, flavor, and to pull everything together. Feel free to finish the dish with a handful of chopped fresh herbs, such as basil or oregano.
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

7 Easy 20-Minute Pasta Dinners

Start there, with that template. Then use one of these seven ideas for suggested combinations, and take it away from there.

Mix and match any of the ingredients, swap in the seasonings and vegetables that you like, grab what’s in season at the market, or rescue miscellaneous items lurking in your vegetable drawer; these notions are just to get the gerbil up and running in the wheel. All of these can be put together while you boil the water and cook the pasta (don’t forget to save some of that pasta cooking water before you drain it!).

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Shrimp + Asparagus

Serves 6

  • Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 3 sliced shallots, and sauté until the shallots are soft and lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
  • Add 1 pound medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on or off as you please. Sauté until the shrimp are pink and almost cooked through, about 3 minutes. Turn the mixture into a serving bowl.
  • Return the skillet to the heat and add 2 more teaspoons olive oil. Add 2 pounds thick asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Sauté for about 4 minutes with a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.
  • Meanwhile, cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water. Return the pasta to the cooking pot.
  • Return the shrimp and the shallots to the skillet, add the zest of 1 lemon, and combine well. Add 1/2 cup heavy cream. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water, bring to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper.
  • Turn the sauce into the pot with the pasta. Add 2 tablespoons butter and the juice of 1 lemon. Combine everything well. Check the seasonings, and add more water if necessary to make the sauce a nice consistency. Serve hot or warm.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Chicken + Brussels Sprouts + Mustard

Serves 6

  • Sauté 1 to 2 chopped onions or a few cloves of garlic in olive oil in a large, deep skillet.
  • Add 1 pound of cubed chicken and sauté until browned on the outside. Transfer to a bowl.
  • Sauté about 1 pound of Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved, in the same skillet in another tablespoon of olive oil, until crisp-tender. Add those to the chicken in its separate bowl.
  • Meanwhile, cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.
  • Pour a glug or two of dry white wine in to the hot pan over medium-high heat, add a generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard, and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, 1 cup of hot chicken broth, and whisk to make a sauce.
  • Return the chicken and Brussels sprouts to the pan and simmer until everything is cooked through. Add 1 tablespoon of butter. Season with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, or another seasoning that you prefer, and toss with the drained pasta.
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Pork + Broccoli + Rosemary

Serves 6

  • Sauté 1 to 2 chopped onions or a few cloves of garlic in olive oil in a large, deep skillet.
  • Add 1 pound cubed pork loin and sauté until browned and cooked through, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
  • Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in the same pan, and sauté 4 cups broccoli florets with 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary, then add 1/2 cup dry white wine. Stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
  • Meanwhile, cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.
  • Add 1/2 to 1 cup of the pasta cooking water to the skillet. Cover and allow the broccoli to steam for a couple of minutes until tender.
  • Toss the pasta with the broccoli and sauce and the reserved pork. Add 1 tablespoon of butter or good olive oil, check seasonings, and finish with another toss.
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Sea Scallops + Peas + Lemon

Serves 6

  • Cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet and sear 1 pound sea scallops until they are just barely cooked through and nicely browned, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and cover to keep warm.
  • Sauté 3 chopped shallots in olive oil. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, and 2 cups peas, and bring to a simmer.
  • Add 1 tablespoon butter and the zest and juice of 1 or 2 lemons, depending on how tangy you like it. Add 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves.
  • Toss the sauce with the pasta, adding more cooking water if needed, and checking for seasoning, then top with the sautéed scallops.
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Sausage + Broccoli Rabe + Parmesan

Serves 6

  • In a large skillet heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté 1 pound ground sausage (any kind) with a bit of minced garlic. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a bowl.
  • In the fat remaining in the skillet, sauté 1 bunch chopped broccoli rabe, just until coated with the oil.
  • Meanwhile, cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.
  • Add 1 cup broth, cover the skillet, and steam the broccoli rabe until it is tender. Add about 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water to the skillet.
  • In a large bowl, toss the drained pasta with the sauce, broccoli rabe, and sausage. Add about 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and toss well, checking for seasoning, and adding more of the pasta cooking water if needed, and passing additional Parmesan on the side.
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Kale + Peppers + Onions

Serves 6

  • Cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.
  • In a large skillet sauté 2 thinly sliced onions and 2 thinly sliced bell peppers in olive oil, until almost tender — about 8 minutes.
  • Stir in 1 tablespoon fennel seeds. Add 4 cups chopped, washed baby kale leaves (they should still have some water clinging to them), and sauté until the kale is wilted, about 5 minutes.
  • Add about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and 1 cup hot chicken or vegetable broth, and return to a simmer.
  • Toss with the pasta and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Check for seasoning.
(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Fettuccine + Eggplant + Basil + Feta

  • Cook 1 pound pasta in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.
  • Sauté 4 thinly sliced shallots in olive oil in a large skillet, then add 3 cups diced eggplant. Sauté until tender and lightly browned, about 8 minutes.
  • Add 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, and 1 cup of warm tomato sauce, and bring to a simmer and stir to loosen any bits from the bottom of the pan.
  • Toss the eggplant and sauce with the pasta. Finish with 1 tablespoon butter or extra-virgin olive oil, and additional cooking water as needed.
  • Check seasonings, turn into a serving bowl, and top with 1 cup crumbled feta and 1/2 cup thinly slivered fresh basil leaves.
(Image credit: Todd Coleman)

For even more quick pasta combinations, check out Katie's new book (especially the Fork in the Road sections):

Dinner Solved!: 100 Ingenious Recipes That Make the Whole Family Happy, Including You!

by Katie Workman

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