I’ve been making a lot of quarantine pasta lately. And yeah, I always make a lot of pasta, mostly because it’s a versatile way to throw a bunch of flavors I love into a single dish. In recent weeks I haven’t bothered to plan out what kind of pasta I’ll be making though.
The grocery stores in our area always have plenty of food, but since they rarely have everything on my list, my mid-February habit of “I’m going to make this meal and buy those ingredients” doesn’t work very well. Instead I think about the overall type of sauce that would suit the things I already have on hand or managed to grab during my weekly shopping trip. It’s a more improvisational process that’s easy enough to change up if I find myself with unexpected leftovers or produce that’s going off faster than expected. And since it’s different than how I usually plan meals, I keep thinking of it as quarantine pasta.
To keep myself from just grabbing the same handful of stuff every week, I put together some lists of ingredients that work well with tomato sauce, olive oil, or pesto pasta. So read on if you want a few too many tips to Choose Your Own Pasta Adventures.
The hard part of staying at home hasn’t been the staying at home. It’s the uncertainty. I hate not knowing how long this will last, when we’ll be able to move around again in relative safety, or whether any of our loved ones will get sick. So while I’ve sometimes worked on more ambitious meals during these last few weeks, I mostly just want comfort food. And that, for me, is pasta.
There is a spaghetti recipe in Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook, and I thought about testing it out this week. Barbie wants me to make the meat sauce using condensed tomato soup though, which is not something I’m excited by. I’ll probably get around to trying it her way eventually, but lately I’m trying to stick with meals that I know I’ll be satisfied with.
When I cook pasta, I mostly stick with three basic sauces. Tomato sauce is obviously the most classic, and it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Tossing pasta with olive oil is really versatile and lets you add a ton of veggies or other flavors. And then there’s pesto pasta, which is probably my very favorite food.
I’ll go over some great things to add to all three. (If you prefer Alfredo or some other kind of cream sauce, that should work with most of the suggestions under the olive oil heading.) These lists are focused on my personal faves, so there are a lot of traditional pasta add-ins that aren’t included. For example, I don’t cook with peppers (I’m allergic) or mushrooms (which taste like dirt and sorrow). But if you have some other ideas, leave them in the comments!
When prepping meat and veggies to go into a pasta, be sure to season those ingredients as you cook them. I know you’ll probably cook your pasta in heavily salted water, and seasoning the sauce at the end is good too. But seasoning the other ingredients during cooking builds more flavor.
Another tip that works for any kind of pasta is to save some of the water your pasta was cooked in and add a tablespoon at a time to your sauce until it reaches a good consistency. The starch in pasta water helps to bind and thicken a sauce, which makes this an easy way to improve even a quick jar sauce dinner.
Quarantine Pasta with Tomato Sauce
My go-to quick dinner is pasta, a good quality jar tomato sauce, and fresh grated cheese, but it’s almost as easy to make sauce out of canned tomatoes. Just cook any meat you want to use, sauté some chopped vegetables, add a large can of tomatoes (crushed, chopped, or whole peeled ones will work), and stir it all together. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, and break up any large chunks of tomato with a spoon. You can use as many or as few ingredients as you’d like, depending on how much time and effort you want to put in.
If you’re using herbs in your red sauce, a good general rule is to add dried herbs early on in the process of cooking your sauce but save the fresh ones until shortly before taking it off the heat. Crushing dried herbs in your hands a little also helps to bring out their flavor.
ground beef, ground turkey, italian sausage (remove the casings before cooking), chunked or shredded chicken
onion, red onion, minced garlic, carrot, celery
Add Herbs and Seasonings:
salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, basil, oregano, mint,
parmesan, Pecorino Romano, mozzarella (in chunks or grated), or top with a dollop of ricotta cheese
My Favorite Extras:
butter – I first learned to melt butter into tomato sauce from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is one of the cookbooks I go back to most often. Butter evens out the acidity of the tomatoes and gives your sauce an amazing texture. I often add a tablespoon or so to store-bought sauce when making two portions.
heavy cream – Another beautifully fatty option to luxe up your pasta. Stir in a glug at a time until you’re happy with the taste and texture.
mascarpone cheese – This is my secret weapon for tomato sauce. Mascarpone is a soft cheese that you can find in the deli section of most grocery stores, and it’s probably best known as the cheese you’d use to make tiramisu. It gives red sauce a silky texture and adds just a touch of sweetness; though it’s not sweet enough to make it taste like you’d dumped some sugar in.
Try These Combinations:
onion and butter – This is Marcella Hazan’s famous sauce combo. It’s simple but also amazing, especially if you use the best quality canned tomatoes you can find.
mint and mascarpone – Mixing a small bunch of fresh chopped mint and mascarpone cheese (about a quarter cup for two portions) is one of my favorite quick-fix pastas. Both ingredients add a bit of sweetness, but the fresh taste of mint brightens up the creamy, indulgent flavor of the mascarpone.
Quarantine Pasta with Olive Oil
Olive oil is such a great, simple base for a pasta dish. You can adjust the flavor just by changing up which oil you use, and it’ll taste great with just about anything you have on hand. Olive oil pastas are also nice because you can make an extra large portion, add a little vinegar (like red wine or balsamic) to your leftovers, and serve it as a pasta salad for the next day’s lunch.
When picking an olive oil to use on your pasta, it pays to be choosy. Some widely available extra virgin olive oil may be a fake blend of cheaper oils or old enough to have gone rancid. Look for an extra virgin olive oil that comes in a tinted bottle rather than a clear one (too much light wrecks the flavor), and stick with brands that give you the production date on the label. Olive oil should be used within a year of when it was created, so knowing exactly when an oil was produced gives you a better timeline than just trusting a manufacturer’s suggested “best by” date.
chunked or shredded chicken, diced pancetta (fried until crispy), crumbled bacon, chopped prosciutto (uncooked)
minced or thinly sliced garlic, carrots, celery, shallots, onion, red onion, sliced asparagus, peas (cook separately or add to the pasta water 3-4 minutes before your pasta is done), tomatoes (sautéed or roasted), sun-dried tomatoes
Add Herbs and Seasonings:
salt, pepper, fresh basil, parsley, lemon (juice and/or zest), garlic powder,
Pecorino Romano, parmesan, mozzarella, mascarpone cheese, heavy cream
My Favorite Extras:
leeks – I didn’t cook with leeks until well into my 30s, but I love having them in pastas and soups now. If you’re new to them, you prepare them by cutting off the root end and the dark green leaves at the top, and then you need to separate the layers and wash really well between them. (Leeks are pretty dirty.) For pasta, it’s often easier to chop the leeks into halves or quarters (depending on their size), slice ’em, and swish the slices in a big bowl of water, letting them rest for long enough for the dirt to settle to the bottom. Then scoop your leek pieces out and drain them before sautéing (like this).
pine nuts – I prefer the longer “pignolia” version of these that you tend to find in small packages near the Italian foods to the stubby bulk pine nuts from the produce section, but unfortunately the good ones are pricier. Any kind that you buy should be toasted in a dry pan over low heat until they get fragrant and turn just a little darker. And before eating pine nuts at all, you may want to read up on pine mouth and decide if they’re worth the risk. (I cut back on my pine nut consumption after learning about it, but I do still roll those dice once or twice a month.)
infused olive oil – If you have some extra time, put a small saucepan over low heat and add a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil and a clove or two of peeled, smashed garlic. Warm the oil for 3-5 minutes, remove the garlic, and set the oil aside. Then use this oil on your pasta for some good garlicky flavor. (Some folks make larger batches and refrigerate the extra oil. But since homemade infused oils can lead to botulism if they aren’t prepared just right, I try to make just enough to stir into my pasta and use any excess as a bread dip with that same meal.) Oh, and you can get a similar effect by just buying a garlic-infused olive oil in the first place, assuming you’ll use enough of it to make that worthwhile.
Try These Combinations:
mascarpone, roasted tomato, and leeks – Melting mascarpone cheese into to your olive oil pasta will add creaminess and a slight sweetness that goes well with the mild onion-y taste of the leeks. The tomato adds a tangy flavor, and it also looks pretty.
peas, shallots, and prosciutto – This is a classic combination for a reason. Shallots are milder than onions, which means they won’t overwhelm the other flavors. And there’s no better way to use a good prosciutto (other than just eating it plain with some crusty bread, of course).
Quarantine Pasta with Pesto Sauce
Pesto pasta is one of my favorite foods, and it’s definitely the tastiest thing I can easily, reliably make at home.
I have a set of pretty firm opinions about pesto. The most important of them is this: pesto is made with basil. If you want to make a sauce out of other things, then great. Go wild! But if you invite me over for pesto pasta and then serve me some concoction of parsley or red peppers or whatever, I’ll get sad.
The best pesto is always gonna be the one you make at home. If you want to use a premade version to cut prep time though, make sure you read the ingredients. Most jarred pestos add or leave out ingredients to make them last longer (or even just to look more green), which leads to some unappealing flavor combinations. The best options tend to be the ones from the refrigerated section or the ones that stick with pine nuts instead of switching to cheaper cashews. You can always add a little of your own olive oil to freshen up a mid-range jarred pesto, but the ones that are sour from too much citric acid are pretty hard to salvage.
It’s best to mix the pesto, olive oil, and any other sauce component you’re using (pasta water, mascarpone, heavy cream, etc.) in a small bowl before saucing the pasta. That helps it coat the pasta more evenly than tossing everything in a bowl (the way I do if I’m just using olive oil).
The pesto should be the star here, so I use fewer add-ins than I’d typically choose for a tomato sauce or olive oil pasta. When using pesto, I just pick two or three things from this list.
chopped or shredded chicken, diced pancetta (fried until crispy)
thinly sliced garlic, shallots, onion, tomatoes
Add Herbs and Seasonings:
stick with salt and pepper on this one
parmesan, Pecorino Romano, those little balls of mozzarella, mascarpone cheese or heavy cream (for a creamy pesto sauce)
My Favorite Extras:
roasted garlic – There’s already garlic in the pesto, but the sweet, mellow flavor of roasted garlic goes nicely with the sharper bite of the raw garlic in the sauce. Take a whole bulb of garlic, remove most of the paper from the outside, then chop about 1/4 inch off the top of the bulb. Pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil on that cut side, letting the oil settle down in all the cracks. Wrap the bulb in tinfoil and roast at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes, at which point you should be able to squeeze out the soft, roasted cloves and add them to your pasta. (While the roasted garlic is still warm it’s also easy to spread it on bread, and that’s freaking delicious.)
roasted tomatoes – I know it’s faster and easier to just sauté your fresh tomatoes for a pasta dish, but roasting brings out a richness that makes pretty much every vegetable better. Chop tomatoes into small pieces, mix with just enough olive oil to coat, then add salt, minced garlic, or other seasoning. Roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until they’re as done as you like ’em.
There are so, so many ways to make pasta, but these are my faves right now. And while a lot of grocery aisles may not have the selection we’re used to, I’ve found everything I’ve mentioned at least once in the past month.
I hope that things get better soon but that people will still take precautions even if their areas are opening public spaces again. I want us to be able to hang out, to make meals together, and to share food without potentially putting each other at risk. Until then, I’m happy to settle for eating well with what I have on hand (or what I can find in the grocery store each week) and talking to friends about their own quarantine cooking experiments.
I know there’s a lot of focus on everyone’s efforts to get back to living their regular lives again, but that’s the whole point of this quarantine for me. These are our lives. They’re the only ones we’re going to get. It’s up to us to take care of ourselves and each other.
So be safe out there.