Chock-Fulla-Veggies Pasta

I may not make many friends on this one, but I’m not a huge fan of what seems to be the culinary theme of the new millennium: the assembly of fast dinners in record time.  I use the word assembly intentionally – I don’t think that microwaving something frozen & tearing open a bag of salad is really cooking. Hey, I appreciate the need for a quick weeknight dinner, particularly if the alternative is a bucket of KFC. But I think that when it comes to cooking your body gets out of it what you put into it.

This recipe will take longer than opening up a can of Prego and dumping it onto some pasta. (Unless of course it takes as long to boil water on your stove as it does on mine in which case maybe not.) But I would argue that this version of weeknight pasta tastes better, is better for you, & is a great way to sneak some more veggies into your diet. I started making my own red sauce because I couldn’t find a jarred version that we could all agree on. But I have exiled canned tomato sauce from the house because I like to control the quality of ingredients & salt and sugar content. Plus homemade is just so much tomato-ier.

If you haven’t made your own red sauce before, give it a try! I guarantee it’s easy, and standing over a stovetop stirring a pan of simmering tomato-y goodness, breathing in the bouquet of classic ingredients will soothe your soul and heal your chaotic work-frazzled mind. Guaranteed.

Here are some tips for getting the most bang for your buck with pasta:

  • Make the basic sauce, then clean out your produce drawer. My favorite veggie add-ins are: zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, bell peppers, or broccoli. Or hit up the salad bar at your grocery store for artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, or grilled eggplant. (Just be careful to avoid oil-drenched salad bar picks, or try to eliminate as much oil as possible with paper towels while prepping.)
  • Pasta is a go-to staple for good reason: it’s cheap, versatile and generally loved by all. Try reversing the proportions though, so instead of being a mound of pasta with a side of sauce, it’s a mound of veggies with a side of pasta
  • Experiment with some of the new whole wheat pastas. They’ve gotten significantly better recently. They also offer fortified pastas, ideal for getting extra protein into finicky eaters.
  • Especially in a recipe like this where the ingredients really shine, use the best possible tomatoes you can find. I actually prefer *gasp* canned tomatoes because of product consistency all year long. My favorites are San Marzano tomatoes. Sure, a can of San Marzanos can set you back 3 or 4 bucks, and they’re not always easy to find, but they took my red sauce to a whole new level. I don’t care if these tomatoes came from the moon – they are worth every food mile.  (Here are more San Marzano fun facts.)
  • For an extra layer of flavor depth, try tossing in a piece of parmesan rind into the sauce while it simmers. If you don’t have any rind leftover from a block of cheese, you can often purchase it from the grocery store cheese counter and freeze what you don’t use. It adds a rich nuttiness to the sauce that is just delicious. Be sure to fish it out and discard before plating though!

Weeknight Red Sauce

Click here to print this recipe.
Active Time: 35 minutes, though the longer it simmers the better the flavors meld.
Serves 4 as written

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 – 28 oz can tomatoes
1/2 large sweet onion – like vidalia or walla walla, medium chop
3 cloves garlic, chopped (more if you really like garlic)
1 medium zucchini, sliced about 1/4″ thin rounds
2 cups fresh baby spinach
3 or 4 artichoke hearts – either canned or from salad bar, sliced
1 – 1” piece parmesan rind
3/4 – 1 lb pasta, any size
Start with these seasonings and adjust to taste:
1/2 t salt (note: check the salt content of the canned tomatoes, it varies wildly depending on the brand, and you may already have a lot of salt going into the pan.)
1/4 t red pepper flakes
1 t dried basil
1/2 t dried oregano
1/2 t sugar

Put a pot on the stove to boil the pasta water. The pitfalls of cooking pasta are not using enough water, and not salting the water enough. For a pound of pasta, I use a large stock pot, and 4 T of salt. Coordinate when you put the pasta in the boiling water according to when you’d like to eat and the recommended cooking time.

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat, add onion and garlic with a pinch or two of kosher salt and saute until soft, about 3 minutes. Don’t let the garlic burn.

Add the tomatoes, the veggies, parmesan rind, and rest of the seasoning, stir and simmer gently for about 20 minutes (or longer). Check for seasoning again. If you prefer a smoother sauce, use an immersion or regular blender to achieve desired consistency.

I’ve never actually written this recipe down – I usually just wing it. So start with this and taste as you go. My sauce tastes a little different every time I make it. Good seasoning takes lots of practice, so keep tasting.

Tomato sauce freezes very well – make a batch of classic red sauce (with out any added veggies) to freeze, then defrost and add steamed veggies for quick leftovers.

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