One dinner that I was notorious for back before kids (heck, probably even when my oldest was a baby and I was still working full time with an hour and half commute each way to work) was store bought refrigerated tortellini and a jar of sauce. It always tasted good. It was impossible to screw up. Even if the tortellini burst and I bought a different sauce that wasn't quite up to par with the sauce I normally bought, it still tasted good. It was still hearty, filling, and fairly nutritious (doesn't Ragu even claim to give you a full serving of veggies in every serving?)
One of my favorite sauces for pasta is pesto. I LOVE the stuff. There is something ridiculously fabulous about the combination of basil, pine nuts & garlic. I've never come across a store bought brand that wasn't edible, and as long as you don't way too much garlic in it, homemade is fantabulous. And let's face it, some refrigerated/frozen tortellini and some store bought pesto is simple & delicious.
Now, I have made my own tortellini in the past. But for a quick weeknight meal, that ain't happening. So yes, I do buy the refrigerated or frozen ones to help keep me sane. And since nowadays you can even find whole wheat pasta pre-made, it's even better.
I came up with a fantastic homemade pesto, so I don't bother with store bought anymore. If you haven't made your own, you must. It's so easy and SO much better. It's even a much prettier color green than the stuff you buy at the store. Feel free to adjust the amounts to suit your own tastes, but I've received many compliments from this recipe:
2 cups fresh basil leaves (tightly packed)
1/2 cup parmesan cheese (I usually buy the block and just cut off chunks for this)
2-3 garlic cloves (2 large is usually perfect, remember smaller cloves are stronger)
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (toast in pan or oven until lightly brown)
salt & freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil til the right consistency (usually about 1/3 of a cup)
Allow pine nuts to cool slightly once they are toasted. Pulse pine nuts, garlic & parmesan in food processor until it's the consistency of peanut butter. Add basil, pepper and salt (You may want to skip the salt until you see how salty the end result is. The cheese will add quite a bit of saltiness.) and process until well blended. Stream in olive oil until the pesto is the consistency you desire.
I use this pesto in many dishes. It is great on salmon or chicken. It's really good mixed with cooked penne & roasted chicken. I've mixed it with cream cheese for a dip. I've added it to hummus. The possibilities are endless. And if you omit the cheese, you can make large amounts of this pesto and freeze it in 1 cup servings. Then you always have pesto ready to use. You can either add fresh grated cheese to it after it thaws, or just put lots of fresh grated cheese on your pasta after you mix it with the pesto.
Now you can just add that sauce the the pasta of your choice. Add a grilled chicken breast and a side of veggies and call it a meal. But last night I decided to raise the bar on flavor and nutritional value.
I've always searching for ways to get good veggies into my family without always having a side of veggies on the plate. I'm blessed with kids that aren't really picky and will typically eventually clean their plate. But the veggies are often last to go. Often take some coercing to get into their tummies. And let's face it, when you want dinner to be really quick, you don't always have time to fix them in a way that would wow the masses. Quite often you don't get enough salt on them. Or they are over-boiled. Or something goes horribly wrong. So I love it when I get a great idea of a way to sneak in a veggie, without really affecting the flavor (at least not negatively) or appearance.
I spent a large chunk of the day thinking of flavors that would go well with pesto tortellini. Cause let's face it -- pesto tortellini rocks all on it's own. I've seen numerous times on Food Network where someone makes a pesto that isn't pine nut-basil pesto. I've seen spinach-walnut pestos and arugula pestos. The limits are endless. But I rarely venture into creating a new pesto (or even trying one of their recipes) cause I'm a fanatic for plain ole tried and true pesto. But I figured since chopped spinach is often used in those other pestos and it sort of resembles pesto, it would blend into the dish well to boost the nutritional value.
And I love bacon & onions with my spinach. And with my pasta and my cheese. And the final result was devoured by my children. All 3 kids asked for seconds. And my poor husband, who had to work late, said it was great even after having to warm it up in the microwave. And for an added bonus, I decided to wait to post this recipe until after we warmed up the leftovers for dinner. Yes, this is a meal you will not dread having leftovers of. It is that good. It heats up that good. I rarely cook the same thing very often. I just don't. But this may become one of those recipes that the kids request on a regular basis.
2 (2.5 serving size) packages of whole-wheat cheese tortellini
Pesto sauce from above
3 slices of bacon, cut into small cubes
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 package of frozen, chopped spinach - thawed
1 cup fresh mozzerella (I used the tiny balls, or you could cut a large piece into cubes)
salt & fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Cook the tortellini according to package directions. Drain well.
In a dutch oven, fry the bacon & onions over medium heat. Once the onions are translucent, add the spinach. Continue to cook until the water from the spinach has cooked out. Add the tortellini and pesto sauce to the pot. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally (gently so you don't break up the tortellini) until the pesto is coating everything evenly. Add the fresh mozzarella, and additional salt & pepper if you desire. Keep on heat until the cheese starts to melt.
I think this dish would have been great with a pinch of red pepper flakes, but I omit it as to not get things too spicy for the kids. But as much as I love my spicy food, I'm such a pesto fanatic, I didn't miss it. :)
It's that simple. So without much effort at all, you have improved upon a simple pasta dish.