I am firmly of the opinion that you can run yourself ragged trying to cook from scratch for every course of every meal you eat throughout a given week, and I don’t believe that kind of effort is necessary to put quality food on the table. One thing that I like to do for quick meals is prepare some kind of packaged filled pasta with a sauce of my choosing. Generally speaking, I get more satisfaction out of making these sauces myself, though even that can sometimes be a very drawn out affair. As an antidote to the tomato sauce that requires a two-hour simmer (save that one for the weekend!), here are a couple of quick and easy pasta sauces.
The first is sort of like a cheese gravy. Sounds weird, huh. It isn’t. Imagine something akin to an alfredo sauce, but without the artery-clogging heavy cream. Here’s the general ratio of ingredients I use for saucing pasta for my husband and I: 1 tablespoon butter to 1 tablespoon flour to 1 cup milk to (roughly) ¾ oz shredded hard cheese. The preparation is not unlike what you’d do to make gravy. First melt the butter over medium heat in a skillet - I generally use a 10" nonstick number, but I doubt that’s a hard-fast rule. Next add the flour and stir with a whisk until it is sizzling and its lumps are gone - I use a silicon-coated whisk to keep from damaging my pan. While you’re dutifully whisking away, add your milk in a slow steady stream. Do not stop whisking! I typically don’t add all the milk right away. I’ll add it until the sauce is on the runny side of clinging-to-pasta consistency. Then I dump in the cheese and whisk until the cheese is melted. Here’s where I stop and give the sauce a taste and add a bit of salt and pepper to punch it up, and if that doesn’t do the trick, I may add in a bit more cheese. Finally, if my sauce has tightened up too much in all that stirring and tasting, I’ll add a little more milk to loosen it back up. This sauce seems to go particularly well with pastas filled with mushrooms or greens. Also, it seems to work well with a variety of cheeses. I’ve tried it with parmigiano-reggiano, stravecchio, and aged cheddar. I bet it would be really good with gruyere or blue cheese too. Pine nuts and pecans have both been suitable stand-ins for the almonds as well.
The second one is actually even easier than the first one. We have this really great pumpkin tortellini that we purchase from our local Central Market. The filling has the sort of flavor that you wouldn’t want to mask with a sauce that’s overly heavy and/or assertive. My answer is to use a sage and brown-butter sauce, the flavors of which complement the pumpkin very well. This one is a variable sauce - it changes depending on what I have handy (with sage and butter being the constants). Here’s how the sauce was constructed today. Five or six leaves from the sage plant in the back yard were washed and thinly sliced. Then I stuck about a tablespoon and a half of butter into a hot pan to melt. Once it was melted, I put 3 tablespoons or so of blanched slivered almonds into the butter to roast. At this point, you must watch the sauce very carefully. What you’re looking for is the butter to get slightly browned and the almond slivers to become golden and aromatic. If you don’t know this already, almonds slivers can go from deliciously roasted to … well … burnt and unusable in a matter of seconds. Being notoriously bad at paying exclusive attention to anything, I have the empirical data to back that up! However, the roasted almonds are wonderful. They add a pleasant crunch to pasta and in combination with the sage add a heavenly aroma. (As an aside, one of my favorite salad toppings is actually roasted slivered almonds - start with a handful of them in a small dry pan and just roast over medium heat, tossing frequently, until they’re mildly colored and aromatic.) Once the nuts and butter were nearly as roasted as I wanted them to be, I added the sage and promptly removed the pan from the heat. Something else to try that would offer an added degree of control would be to roast your almonds separately from your browning butter, so you can get them to the exact degree of roasted that you like, then add the almonds to the pan at the same time as the sage. The already cooked and drained pumpkin tortellini was added to the sauce and tossed to coat. Finally, I seasoned it with a bit of salt and pepper, and since I happened to have it handy, topped it with a bit of parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
Neither of these sauces takes more than about 5 minutes to make. Serve the pasta in sauce with a side salad and some cut-up fruit and you have a quick and tasty meal. It even has the added benefit of being a little bit homemade.