(Not A Cup of) Noodles

So you're probably saying “everyone knows how to boil noodles” and scrolling past this to the recipes, but take the 2 minutes to hear the basics first. Pasta is very affordable, can be stored uncooked at room temperature indefinitely, and is an easy thing to eat with your more expensive ingredients to fill you up. That said, the pasta can, and should, have some nutritional merits of its own. Whole wheat pasta is one option for this, but the taste and texture are different from traditional pasta, and do not work as well in many dishes, it also is a negligible source of protein. I'd recommend Barilla Plus pasta. It is an enriched white pasta, with a fiber content comparable to whole wheat, and respectable amount of protein (for a carb) too. For all its nutritional benefits, though, few people can discern any difference between that and normal pasta, and I've yet to meet anyone who minds the substitution (not so with whole wheat.) What's the drawback to this magic stuff? It costs more. Usually 150% to 200% the cost of normal pasta. That said, its a price difference of about $1/pound (told you pasta is cheap) and since protein and fiber are the two keys to getting and staying full, you'll have to eat less to fill up, so you're getting more bang for the additional buck.

Now that you have this yellow box of magically enhanced pasta, how do you cook it. The standard for cooking pasta is 1 lb of pasta, 1 gallon of water, and 1 oz of salt. Anyone who just pulled out a measuring cup needs to relax a bit. Pasta is pretty tough to mess up; put some water in a pot, enough that it will more than cover all your pasta (some will evaporate) and add some salt. The best description I've ever heard for how much is “a little less than ocean,” then bring it to a rolling boil (lots of bubbles.) Now might be a good time to put the strainer in the sink. Throw the pasta in, and at 2 minutes less than the cooking time specified on the box, pull a bit out with your slotted spoon, run it under cold water, and taste it. You'll get the hang of if you like your pasta 'al dente' (firm, ever so slightly undercooked in the middle) or softer as you go. When it's just a bit firmer than you'd like (its hot and will keep cooking for a moment after you take it out) pour it into the strainer you already put in the sink, being careful not to put your face directly over it, because the steam will rise and could burn you if you do. I'll skip the explanation of why, but trust me, you should rinse the pasta, it's already in the sink anyway, not like it's hard. Cold water will stop cooking and cool the pasta, perfect if you're going to use it for something else, or already overcooked it a bit and don't want it too smushy. Warm water will keep it warm, and is good if you're about to eat it.

A few other things I've been asked about. Yes, you can definitely add more than salt to the water, and it will have a small effect on the flavor. That's the only chance you'll get to flavor the actual pasta, everything else will be a flavor on top of it. So if you are using herbs or spice in your sauce (thyme, bay leaves, etc.) you can throw a bit in the water. But it's not at all mandatory, just a matter of preference. If you aren't adding any sauce to your pasta, and want to keep it from sticking without the calories or flavor of adding oil or butter, pull some of the water its cooking in out right before you strain it. This water will be full of the starch molecules that the pasta released, and re-tossing the rinsed pasta in that water will keep it moist and help prevent sticking. Now, onto some recipies:

Ragu ain't got nothing on you

I taught my sister about this when she got her first apartment and was worried that she wouldn't be able to make anything but the pasta with jarred sauce my dad always served, and that that wasn't enough nutrition. I think she ate this at least 3 times a week, but she has neither gone broke nor starved, so that is the best endorsement I can give you.

The idea of this dish is to fill up on cheap pasta, let the good people at Ragu do most of the heavy lifting, but still get fresh vegetables and protein. How do you do this? By adding your own stuff to a 99-cent jar or can of pasta sauce. You can add pretty much any meat or vegetable that strikes your fancy, but this is a good, simple, easy starting place, and a meal that should make you 2-5 servings, and cost $10-15 depending on where you get your groceries. It will take about 15 minutes of work, and about 25 minutes to make. I'm going to tell you how to make the sauce, you can then mix that on pasta whenever you want.

What You'll Need:
1 yellow onion
minced garlic
Green pepper
Other veggies as desired
Meat of your choice
Jar of tomato sauce

Cut a yellow onion into smallish pieces. Sidenote on cutting an onion easily (if anyone has a sidenote on putting pictures or videos online easily I'll upload some.) Cut the ends off the onion first. It will now stand straight up and down on your cutting board, and you'll be able to slice it in half easily. From there, lay the large flat side on the cutting board, the peel will come off easily, and you will have a clean onion flat on the board to cut from there. As Donkey taught us, onions have layers: the idea is to use those to your advantage. Making cuts parallel to the un-cut side will give you a sliced onion. If you want it diced (in this case, you probably do) hold it together as best you can, then turn the strips 90% (or rotate the cutting board) and cut in that direction.

Heat some (1-2 teaspoons, again, no need to measure) oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Add about half a teaspoon of minced garlic and the onion. Stir it around, lay it out flat, and leave it. While it's cooking, cut up a green pepper, then throw that in, and add a bit of ground black pepper. You can add other veggies here if you'd like as well. Suggestions: mushrooms, fresh or canned diced tomatoes, spinach (you don't have to cut it, it will wilt in the frying pan and shrink to a nice, bite sized pieces). Like it spicy? Cut some hot peppers very small and add them. Let it all cook on a low heat until it's soft. (too high a heat will make the outside dark before the inside cooks).

After this you can add your choice of protein. Any store bought sausage, pepperoni, tofu product (I know, most of my friends are yelling blasphemy, but it's very cheap, and the point of this is to grab the cheapest thing you like and exert very little effort), or cooked chicken will be easiest, just cut it into bite sized pieces and throw it in. If you're getting sausage look for ones that say nitrate-free if possible (no added nitrates is NOT the same thing) though that usually means some kind of fake turkey sausage. Nitrates are not healthy, but again, that's a matter of preference. You could also add ground beef at this stage, if you want fresh meat, add salt and pepper, and just stir it in the pan with the vegetables until its turned from pink to gray. Then pour a jar of tomato sauce over the whole mess, and you'll have your very own “home made” meat and vegetable sauce. Divide it into bowls, Tupperware, or Ziploc bags so that each one is what you'd consider a single serving. You can also put most of it right back into the jar the pasta sauce came in, to save on containers. You can either refrigerate or freeze it as is, or add pasta first. It will last 4-6 days in the fridge, and for months in the freezer. You can reheat it in the microwave.

Mix this sauce with whatever shape of pasta strikes your fancy (or is on sale) add some grated Parmesan cheese (optional) and enjoy. ***If you want to eat this right away, put water on to boil first, add the pasta when its ready, and make your sauce/veggies while the pasta cooks.

Basic Pasta Casserole

This dish is basically an easy variation on baked ziti. You can do a lot with it once you get used to what you're doing, just start simple and as you feel more comfortable you can play around with it. The idea is to use sauce to keep the dish moist, cheese to keep it all together, and then add whatever else you want/have lying around.

Effort time: 15 minutes, total time, 1 hr 30 mins.

What You'll Need
Tomato Sauce
Ricotta Cheese
Shredded Cheese
Other meat/veggies as desired

Start with a pound of whatever shape of pasta strikes your fancy other than the long ones (spaghetti, linguine, etc.) Cook it, rinse it with cold water until you can comfortably touch it and there's no more steam, shake it dry and put it in your mixing bowl. Add tomato sauce, starting with about half a jar, and mix until all the pasta is lightly coated. Mix in at least 8 oz ricotta cheese (low fat or fat free is totally acceptable) and at least 6 oz shredded cheese (mozzerella, swiss, jarlsberg, or any other italian flavor or blend). At this point you can throw it into a lightly greased baking pan, and bake at 375 for about 45 minutes or until firm, but there are lots of other things you can do as well.

You can add any cooked or raw veggies you'd like. Cooking them first will make them soft and subtle in the dish, sneaking nutrition where you wouldn't otherwise get it. Adding big pieces of tomato will make it moist and have a stronger tomato flavor, but I would advise adding them before the sauce, and using less sauce so it isn't super-liquidy. You can also add way more cheese if you'd like, including putting a cheese layer on top like a pizza. Breadcrumbs can be sprinkled on top for crunch. Parmesan cheese can be added at any point in the process Any cooked meat can be mixed in as well, just cut it into bite sized pieces and stir it in. Make any additions (other than a top layer) while its in the bowl. Once its in the pan you can leave it for up to a day before baking it the first time, if you want to prep in advance.

Once it's done the dish will keep refrigerated for 4-6 days, or you can freeze single serving amounts to be microwaved later, or eaten cold. (They will reheat fine in the oven, I'm just assuming you want quick and easy.)

If you want to have friends over for dinner this is a great thing to make that will feed everyone. I'd pair it with rolls or garlic bread, and a salad or other vegetable dish. The pasta will keep everyone full, the bread dresses the meal up nicely, and vegetables are a nice and nutritious accompaniment that you won't need to spend too much on, because people will tend to eat much more of the pasta than they do the healthy stuff.

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