Since we were newlyweds I always made my own spaghetti sauce. Not from tomatoes or anything, just added my own seasoning to tomato sauce. There are times when this is convenient (like when you don't have bottled sauce), but it has gotten to be an onerous task for me. This was particularly because I never measured anything, so Adam would sometimes complain that he didn't like it one night, or compliment me saying it was particularly good another night. I never thought I did anything different, but in the last few months it got to where it was easier to just buy the bottled sauce on sale or with coupons (well, actually both), and have a stash in the pantry. If you're feeling adventurous, here are the seasonings I use (and rather like) when I do make homemade sauce. They are in descending order of how much of each I use. As a side note: I am not a lover of sweet spaghetti sauce, so I don't add sugar like a lot of people. But there is nothing wrong with that if you love it!
garlic powder (not salt)
Heat to boiling, and simmer while cooking pasta to enhance flavor.
Okay, here are my tricks for making pasta special, when in reality it is just a quick, easy fix for dinner:
At our house, bread makes or breaks the meal, and particularly so with pasta (hey, no one in our house is counting carbs!). If there is no bread on the table with a pasta dinner, an unnamed someone will sigh and grab a loaf of bread and butter and plunk it on the table. Therefore, I have become tricky with the bread that is oh, so essential and often adds too much time and effort to be worth it to me.
- French bread. This is our number one choice for an Italian dinner: French bread, sliced lengthwise in half, slathered with butter and sprinkled with garlic and Italian seasoning. Bake directly on oven rack, buttered side up, for 5-10 minutes at 350 degrees.
- Crescent rolls. When there is no opportunity to get to the store for fresh French bread, I say a quick prayer and hope there are crescent rolls in the fridge (I try to keep a couple of refrigerated packages of reduced fat crescent rolls on hand for all kinds of tricky things). Slice some mozzarella to roll up inside, then sprinkle the rolls with grated Parmesan, garlic, and Italian seasoning. Bake at 375 degrees for 10ish minutes.
- White bread. A plain loaf of white bread will do in a pinch, but I like to butter and season it, then bake it directly on the oven rack for a few minutes.
- We like meat in our meals, so if nothing else I will crumble and brown ground beef to add to spaghetti sauce.
- You can also change things up, like adding chicken instead of beef to marinara sauce.
- Or, if you have alfredo sauce, sometimes fettuccine alfredo makes a nice side dish for pork or steak or whatever cut of meat you already have in the fridge or freezer.
- My kids love meatballs, but I really dislike the time it takes to make them. As a compromise, when Lin's has their big meat sale every 6 months or so, I stock up on ground beef and before freezing it, make a giant batch of meatballs to freeze. Here's my meatball recipe. You just lay them out on a cookie sheet and freeze for a few hours, then transfer to gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags (I like to double bag them to prevent freezer burn). I'm pretty stingy with the meatballs so they will last a long time. Or, you can just buy pre-made frozen meatballs to keep in the freezer!
If I have no other way to dress it up, shaped pasta will do the trick. Bowties are our personal favorites, but angel hair, fettuccine, rotini, ziti, shells and elbow macaroni have all made their way into our pasta meals. My kids get so excited to have bowties with alfredo and chicken! And don't forget ravioli and other filled pastas. You can buy these frozen and just keep them on hand (Costco carries some that's really good). Here I will suggest trying different flavors of pasta sauce, but only if your kids aren't too picky, like mine. We have two varieties at our house: white and red. We're fine with that, though. And for those special occasions, when you actually want to spend time cooking: lasagna. I won't even elaborate about lasagna, because it makes me tired just thinking about it. (I will say, though, that there are lots of frozen lasagnas that are really good, like Stouffer's.)
One thing I struggle with is measuring the right amount of spaghetti. I'm not usually so off on other types of pasta, but spaghetti can be tricky for me for some reason. We have a spaghetti measuring tool (it looks a lot like this one) that helps a lot with that.
And for a quick, easy pasta dish that's really different (and really yummy), here's a fun recipe: Angel Hair Pasta Chicken. I think I'm actually going to go make that for dinner right now...