Weeknight pasta starts with prep work

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

The secrets to carefree weekday pasta dinners? First, stock the fixings. Dried pastas, tinned tomatoes, hard grating cheese, fully cooked meatballs or sausage, dried herbs and olive oil. Second, prep a few things in advance. I roast vegetables, make sauces, saute onions and mushrooms, slip an extra ear or two of corn into the pot, even cook ground meat a day or two ahead. At dinner time, I simply reheat ingredients and boil water.

The recipes that follow are my homage to the waning days of farmers markets and farm stands. I’m happily buying up the last of the local tomatoes, corn, eggplant and fresh peppers. With any luck, there are still herbs in the garden for a quick pesto or to flavor a creamy sauce.

The cilantro-almond pesto here uses lots of fresh cilantro and no cheese, which makes a light sauce for flat pastas such as fettucine, linguine or tagliatelle. I also add a little fresh basil because I love the slight licorice taste it imparts. Other options to add to the cilantro include the tender fronds from a bulb of fresh fennel, or a leaf or two of fresh epazote or hoja santa, herbs common in Mexican cooking.

Make the pesto several days in advance and refrigerate it in a jar. Always cover the pesto with a thick film of olive oil as a barrier to prevent browning. Then remove the pesto from the refrigerator so it can warm to room temperature before tossing it with the hot pasta.

Time-crunched? Use store-bought pesto with some chopped fresh cilantro stirred into it. Likewise, feel free to substitute frozen meatballs for the homemade chicken version below. Another fast option is to simply slice fully cooked chicken sausage and brown the slices to serve with the pesto pasta.

The meatballs can be formed several hours ahead of cooking and refrigerated. Once cooked, they will keep about two days in the refrigerator.

Creamy pasta tempts me every time. For the version here, the sauce is made from egg yolks, mascarpone and cheese — no cooking required. Ridged, tube-shaped pasta allows the sauce to cling to all the surfaces beautifully. Roasted eggplant and shishito peppers cut the richness. If you’d like, brown 1/2 pound of Italian sausage or ground pork and add it to the dish for an indulgently rich main course.

As for the rest of my pasta meal, I just want good, hearty bread to use to clean every drop from my plate. And perhaps a simple salad of bitter greens, such as romaine and radicchio dressed with a little olive oil and sherry vinegar.

Ice cream seems like the right dessert here. We cooked, after all. Serve small scoops of coffee ice cream topped with a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Or, try a cup of vanilla gelato topped with a shot of hot espresso. The perfect reward.

Fettucine with cilantro-almond pesto and chicken meatballs. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)


Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 5 to 6 servings

You can swap in frozen chicken meatballs for homemade. Or, use 4 or 5 fully-cooked chicken sausages; slice them and brown lightly in a skillet before serving.

Chicken and spinach meatballs:

  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 pound ground chicken (or turkey)
  • 1/2 cup panko or dried breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh baby spinach or arugula
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced or 2 tablespoons dried chives
  • 1/2 small jalapeno, seeded, minced, optional
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon each: dried oregano, black pepper

Cilantro-almond pesto:

  • 1/2 cup blanched whole, sliced or slivered almonds, 2 1/2 ounces
  • 2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves (OK to leave on small stems)
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, chopped (about 1 ounce total)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 teaspoon lemon oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Expeller-pressed canola, safflower or sunflower oil
  • 1 pound fettuccine noodles, or linguine or tagliatelle
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked or roasted corn kernels, optional
  • 1 1/2 cups roughly chopped fresh ripe tomatoes (or a 15-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, drained)
  • Fresh herb sprigs
  • Grated queso anejo, cotija or asiago cheese

1. For the meatballs, lightly beat the egg in a large bowl. Add remaining meatball ingredients in order listed. Use clean hands to combine. Form 16 meatballs, each 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Place them on a baking sheet. Refrigerate, covered, about 30 minutes (or up to 12 hours).

2. For pesto, process almonds in a high-speed blender or food processor until finely chopped. Add garlic, cilantro and basil. With machine running, add oil and 1 tablespoon water in a slow steady stream until mixture is smooth. Scrape into a bowl; stir in lemon zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Makes about 3/4 cup. (Can be refrigerated for several days; scrape into a small jar and add a layer of olive oil on top to completely cover pesto — this prevents browning. Cover with a lid and refrigerate. Use at room temperature.)

3. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Coat the skillet lightly with canola oil. Add meatballs in an uncrowded layer. Cover with a splatter guard. Cook, turning often, until golden brown on all sides, 12 to 14 minutes. (Reduce heat to medium-low to avoid over-browning.) Use warm or refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days. Reheat gently in the microwave before using.

4. Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add fettuccine and cook, stirring often, until al dente (nearly tender when a strand is bitten), about 10 minutes. Scoop out and save about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta. Pour into a large heated serving bowl. Top with pesto; toss to mix. Add dribbles of the reserved cooking water if needed to loosen things up a bit. Add corn and tomatoes. Toss gently. Add meatballs. Garnish with herb sprigs. Serve right away, passing the cheese at the table.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 719 calories, 38 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 67 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 29 g protein, 675 mg sodium, 6 g fiber


Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

You can use rounds or slices of grilled eggplant here; cut them into small pieces after grilling. Pancetta adds a mild flavor; bacon adds a smoky note that pairs well with the roasted vegetables. Use pasteurized eggs if the danger of salmonella from undercooked eggs is a concern.

  • 1/2 cup mascarpone or creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream (not sour cream)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup finely shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh minced thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large eggplant, about 1 1/4 pounds, ends trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  • Smoked sweet paprika, optional
  • Expeller-pressed canola, safflower or sunflower oil
  • 2 to 3 cups small shishito peppers, patted dry, stems removed OR thick slices red or orange bell pepper
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup (3 to 4 ounces) sliced pancetta or lean bacon, diced
  • 12 to 14 ounces penne or rigatoni
  • Chopped fresh chives or parsley, or a combination
  • Thinly sliced red onion, rinsed

1. Mix the mascarpone, egg yolks, cheese and thyme in a small bowl. Season with pepper. (Refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days; use at room temperature.)

2. Heat oven to 400 degrees on convection or 425 degrees on conventional setting. Cut eggplant into 3/4-inch thick rounds. Cut rounds into 3/4-inch pieces. Place eggplant on an oiled baking sheet. Toss with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and paprika. Roast, stirring once or twice, until richly golden, about 15 minutes. (Refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days.)

3. Meanwhile, heat a film of canola oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Have a splatter guard handy. Add shishito peppers to pan. Cook, turning often, until blistered and blacked in spots, 4 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and scoop out onto a plate. Add pancetta to pan; cook and stir until golden, about 2 minutes (slightly longer if using bacon). Remove from heat.

4. Heat a large pot of well-salted water to boil over high heat. Add penne. Cook, stirring often, until al dente (a tiny bit firm when you bite into a piece), 10 to 12 minutes. Scoop out and reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta; return it to the pot.

5. Stir the mascarpone mixture into the pasta; mix well. Stir in the eggplant and shishito peppers. Add enough cooking liquid to loosen things up a bit if necessary. Sprinkle with pancetta, toss and serve topped with herbs and red onion.

Nutrition information per serving: 869 calories, 53 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 177 mg cholesterol, 74 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 25 g protein, 331 mg sodium, 8 g fiber