Meals don’t get much simpler than spaghetti.
RECIPE Bring water to a boil; add a pinch of salt for flavor and a splash of olive oil to minimize sticking. Break spaghetti in half and add to water (or gradually submerge full-length as they soften). Warm a jar of marinara sauce. When pasta is al dente, dinner is served within 20 minutes. Stop before you stir everything together in one pot! The recipe sounds like a small step up from microwaving a can of SpaghettiOs, but I have just described the preliminary steps for gourmet cuisine, if you care to lengthen the time a bit. With some fresh vegetables on hand, when overlapping tasks, you should be done within 40 minutes. Join me in the kitchen while this improvisational cook turns an ordinary pasta dinner into something amazing.
Three Basic Principles of Gourmet Meals
- Great Flavor
- Optimum Nutrition
- Creative Presentation
Flavor and Nutrition: Even though we didn't make fresh pasta or sauce, we have a measure of control over the ingredients. For example, we can purchase organic spaghetti and low-sodium marinara sauce. Personally, I prefer to leave canned goods for the bomb shelter. A jar of Light Ragu, with crushed tomatoes, basil and no sugar added is in my pantry. Organic Ragu is also available but it includes many veggies and I prefer to add my own fresh ones. Either sauce could use a bit of flavor help.
Set the timer. To the sauce, add a splash of vanilla extract*, fresh minced garlic, coat the top with dried basil, a heavy sprinkle of oregano, an optional light dash of cayenne, and a tablespoon of butter. Have a quick taste before adding dry herbs since they tend to stick on your tongue. Simmer stovetop until smooth or until the dried herbs have softened. If you happen to have fresh herbs, you'll shorten the wait.
Manage time while pasta is boiling. Thinking ahead about presentation, we need contrasting textures. For my crunch, I shear some organic zucchini lengthwise with a potato peeler (or mandolin). Spray or wipe a hot skillet with olive oil on a paper towel. Sear zucchini sprinkled with salt and pepper while turning periodically until somewhat dry; set aside. (I call this "zucchini bacon;" it's usually a bit salty to complement the savory entree.) While the "bacon" is browning, I halve some more zucchini slices, julienne carrots, mince celery, and slice green olives (can't forget those). Check the time. Stir to make certain the pasta is not sticking by agitating through a fork like you're combing long hair.
Wipe the skillet clean and with a light coating of oil, sear the zucchini chunks on each side. Remove and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté the carrots and celery with a dash of salt until slightly tender. Stir some cooked veggies into the sauce and sample the flavor. How's it tasting? Save remaining cooked carrots in a bowl.
What's the status of that pasta? If it's al dente, pour it through a sieve or carefully drain water while holding back pasta with the lid. Mix pasta with the sautéed veggies and olives. Cover and remove from heat. We're nearly done. As a contrasting edible garnish, sauté a double handful of spinach (shrinks to about 1/8 its fresh volume) with olive oil and a light dash of salt on medium low heat until tender. It only takes a couple of minutes; remove while vibrant green.
Il Grande Finale
Presentation: In the gourmet vernacular, the final step is called plating. This is where everything comes together to look like an expensive restaurant-quality entree. Don't crowd the dish; leave some white space. Having diners request seconds is preferred over having them feeling stuffed while looking at a plate of cold picked-over food.
Plating with sauce on the bottom highlights all the colors. Spoon a puddle of marinara in the center of the dish. With a fork, rotate the spaghetti into small "nests," and gently place them on top of the sauce. (For perfect presentation, food stylists may first align the parallel spaghetti before twirling, but they aren't concerned with serving a hot dish.) It should be less than 35 minutes now, depending upon chopping skills. Sprinkle with grated pecorino romano (or parmesan) cheese. Dress with sautéed spinach and drape with zucchini bacon. Express your own artistic flair.
Looking for Protein?
For a vegetarian like me, that's a wrap. The dish is flavorful and filling. Omnivorous readers are shouting: "Zucchini bacon? Where's the meat?" I hear you.
A grilled flattened orange citrus marinated chicken breast and fennel might be a nice accompaniment for animal loving diners. I could do something similar with Gardein Chick'n breast (defrosted in a sealable plastic bag with orange juice, splash of Braggs Liquid Aminos or Tamara sauce, and olive oil).
For another non-meat protein, check out the Cannellini Bean Vegetarian “Meatballs” recipe in the sidebar. With protein from the "meat," lycopene from the tomato sauce, and energy-producing carbs from the pasta, you'll enjoy A Bit More Healthy meal. Thanks for stopping by my kitchen. Bon appétit.
* Vanilla is a alternative to sugar. It mellows the flavor of the powdered spices already in the sauce and enhances savoriness. If preferred, you can substitute sherry.
Photography by author.