Carbs Your Enthusiasm: Pasta for Happy Monday Nights
By Trish Sebastian
Hindsight is 20-20. I wish I knew years ago how ridiculously simple it is to make your own healthy, delicious meals at home in about fifteen minutes on a weeknight, especially on that particularly difficult/despised Monday night. And I’m not talking about just salads either.
(Note from the Fat Kid: We hate Mondays, so when we say Monday, we actually just mean any day of the week that feels like a Monday. I know you understand me.)
When I lived in Manila years ago, I remember never making healthy dinners because I had the misguided notion that cooking is a tedious, consuming endeavor. Juggling a full time job and night MBA school at one point, compounded with the evening commute in epic Manila traffic, just did not permit cooking any semblance of a respectable dinner. I could only resort to fast food or my extensive repertoire of ten minute “cooking”: fried eggs, spam, instant ramen, or instant pansit canton. On hindsight, how did I survive on that?
My epicurean awakening began years later due to the demands of an active lifestyle. I noticed the direct correlation between feeling better and eating better. So I made a personal mandate to cook dinner every night, if possible, and through the process, I’ve tucked away a handful of pasta recipes in my back pocket that I can whip up in minutes during the week.
Pasta is great for Monday night cooking because you can make a sexy pasta dish in the same amount of time it takes to cook noodles in boiling water – about 10 to 15 minutes. Also, pasta holds infinite and fantastic iterations – spaghetti, linguini, rotini, campanelle tossed with chicken, seafood, white wine, red wine, vegetables, tomato sauce, anchovies, olives, it goes on and on. On the flipside, pasta is carbs, much like white rice. While I don’t proselytize eating pasta every night, I do believe in hedonism in moderation. There are also pasta substitutes out there ranging from wheat to quinoa. But truth be told, my favorite is still fresh handmade pasta. If you can get hold of them from the store, they cook in about only three minutes too.
Here are a couple of delicious, simple, no-fail pasta go-to’s, perfect for Monday night (or any other weeknight) dinners in. The beauty of these dishes is that they are modular. Once you get the basic down, you can add your own touch to it, depending on how much time you have, what vegetables are in season, your personal tastes, or the audience you are cooking for.
First things first. These are crucial to cooking these dishes like a rockstar:
- Fresh ingredients. Fresh basil, as opposed to dried or frozen, is the most ideal way to use basil; the potency of its oils is lost when dehydrated. The intense flavor of a fresh tomato is diminished when it is refrigerated or canned. I’m an idealist but if these are not always accessible, do the best you can with what you can get your hands on.
- Real cheese and not the pre-grated ones sold in cans. A wedge will last a few meals in the fridge if you’re only cooking for two. Take the time to grate – it makes a world of a difference. Also, cheese is NEVER the main ingredient. It should complement the flavors of your cooking and never overcompensate for the lack of.
- Only cook what you’re eating that night. For two people, about two to three fistfuls of pasta should do it. Don’t be tempted to chuck the entire box in. If you have an electric kettle, use it! Already boiling water poured to a pot will reduce cooking time by a few minutes. Always cook your pasta al dente (i.e. never too cooked that they coagulate!)
I like using rotini, but spaghetti also works fine. While your pasta is cooking in salted boiling water, chuck a bunch of fresh basil leaves (about 2 cups) in a food processor with about a cup of olive oil (use your taste buds to guide you). Add some toasted pine nuts (about ¼ cup), a handful of freshly grated parmesan cheese, half a garlic and whiz to pesto perfection. If you feel like it, zest a lemon by grating the lemon rind with a cheese grater, but be careful not to grate too deep or you’ll get the bitters. You can also choose to squeeze half the lemon juice. Taste and season with salt and pepper to your liking. For protein, you could cook in olive oil either sliced chicken breasts or an Italian sausage with the skin removed. I also like adding a bit of greens like swiss chard for a healthy twist. Set aside.
When your pasta is done, drain and put back in pan in low heat. Toss pesto with just cooked noodles and chicken or sausage (if using). Add a glug of olive oil if you think it needs it and heat through for about a mintue. To plate, crack fresh pepper, sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and fresh parmesan cheese. Finito.
2. Fresh Cherry Tomato
This might be my ultimate favorite quick pasta meal, especially in the summer. Make sure your hands are washed. Slice up fresh cherry tomatoes, about 3 handfuls and put in a large mixing bowl. Chop a bunch of fresh basil, about ¼ cup, add to the tomatoes. Chop a quarter of a garlic but be careful not to add too much because this “sauce” will basically be raw. Add a few glugs of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Crack fresh pepper and salt to taste. Now the fun part – get your hands in the bowl and squeeze the juice out of the cherry tomatoes. This will also mix all the flavors and juices together. Taste and correct seasoning. Toss with cooked pasta. Grate parmesan over it. Serve with a good glass of dry chilled white wine.
- 3. Summer Vegetables
I like eating this vegetarian, but you can add chicken breast if you desire. In a pan with olive oil, caramelize chopped onions or shallots. The more the merrier. Once soft and almost brown, add chopped carrots, zucchini, green beans, and leaves of two fresh rosemary sprigs. Toss about for about two minutes. Add a couple glugs of white wine (I like chardonnay), a teaspoon of butter, and reduce for about two minutes. Toss cooked pasta until noodles are coated through. Add salt and pepper to taste, plate and top with grated parmesan cheese and chopped chives.
- 4. Carbonara
The Fat Kid Inside has an amazing carbonara recipe that’s simple and easy to make. I like to add caramelized onions and kale when I make it because it adds dimension and also a healthy portion of vegetables. In a separate pan, simply caramelize onions and cook a couple handfuls of chopped kale. Mix in with your carbonara when done and garnish with fresh parsley and fresh parmesan and/or asiago.
- 5. Anchovies, Broccoli, and Dried Chili
This is an unlikely combination, I know. I personally crave savory dishes once in a great while, and when that strikes, I turn to this easy recipe. Cook pasta and in the last two minutes of cooking, add your broccoli florets. Drain. Meanwhile, while your pasta is cooking, cook half of a chopped garlic clove in olive oil and add about four anchovies from the can until it disintegrates in the oil. Add about a tablespoon of lime juice and a crumble a dried chili. Toss with cooked pasta and bring back to heat until thoroughly mixed. Top with grated parmesan cheese.
Now dress up the dinner table, light a couple of candles. Make like you’re dining out and Instagram away (#thefatkidiniside, please). After all, by the time you’ve finished your plate, you’re a day closer to Friday. Salute!