Pasta tends to be a dinnertime trap.
We get it. Feeding your family on a busy weeknight requires the navigation of a complicated matrix in which you must balance the competing demands of limited cooking time, ingredient availability, dwindling energy and patience, picky children, ringing phones, ridiculous afterschool activity schedules and — of course — homework.
So we understand how it happens. You discover those two or three easy pasta dishes that somehow can come together in the midst of all that chaos and that everyone — or at least most of your family — will actually eat. And once you find those dishes, you soon find yourself in the pasta trap. You almost never make any other pasta dish.
But we wanted to help spring you from the trap. We came up with 10 fresh ideas for serving up pasta for dinner. None is complicated. All are versatile enough to adapt to whatever you have on hand. And all can be made with whatever pasta size or shape you’ve got.
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1. Caprese: Toss a pint of halved grape tomatoes, 2 cloves minced fresh garlic, a container of pearl-sized fresh mozzarella balls, and a handful of torn fresh basil leaves into a pot of drained hot pasta. Drizzle with olive oil, balsamic glaze, salt and black pepper, tossing well.
2. Thai peanut: In a blender, combine ½ cup peanut butter, ½ cup hoisin sauce, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, ¼ cup rice wine vinegar and a dash of hot sauce. Stir into hot pasta with cooked shrimp, chopped fresh cilantro, chopped scallions, snow peas and crushed peanuts.
3. Tex-Mex cheeseburger: Brown a pound of ground beef in a skillet. Stir in 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 2 tablespoons chili powder. Add to hot pasta with a pint of halved grape tomatoes and 8 ounces of shredded cheese. Toss well, then season with hot sauce as desired.
4. Spanakopita: Thaw a package of frozen chopped spinach. Drain the spinach very well, using a mesh strainer to help squeeze out any excess water. Stir the spinach into hot pasta with 1 cup ricotta cheese, 1 teaspoon dried oregano and 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese. Season with black pepper and lemon zest.
5. Hawaiian: Stir 1 cup chopped deli ham, 1 can pineapple tidbits (drained), ½ cup crumbled cooked bacon and 1 cup chopped roasted red peppers into hot pasta. Top with shredded Parmesan cheese.
6. Borscht: Brown 1 pound loose sausage meat. Drain and discard any excess fat, then stir in 8 ounces mascarpone cheese and a jar of drained and chopped pickled beets. Add to hot pasta and sprinkle with fresh dill.
7. Shepherd: Microwave and peel a large sweet potato. Brown and drain 1 pound of ground lamb in a skillet. Mash the sweet potato and mix together with the lamb, 4 ounces of cream cheese and a small can of corn kernels (drained). Add 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh rosemary, salt, black pepper and hot pasta.
8. Mediterranean blue chicken: Mix 1 cup chopped Kalamata olives, 2 tablespoons chopped capers, 2/3 cup crumbled blue cheese, 4 chopped scallions, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 cup chopped cherry peppers and 2 cups shredded cooked chicken with hot pasta. Stir in the zest and juice of 1 lemon, then drizzle with olive oil.
9. Three-bean barbecue: Drain a jar of three-bean salad. Mix into hot pasta along with 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce. Sprinkle with shredded cheddar cheese.
10. Garlic and herb: In a small skillet over medium heat, cook 6 cloves of garlic (chopped) in 3 tablespoons olive oil and 3 tablespoons butter for three to four minutes. Mix into hot pasta with a handful each of torn fresh basil, chopped fresh chives and chopped fresh parsley. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, then season with salt and pepper. Top with grated pecorino cheese.