It’s Wednesday night. You’ve just gotten home from a hellish day of classes and meetings, and you’re exhausted. But there’s no stopping now – your friends are coming for dinner in 30 minutes and you have nothing prepared. Think fast. You open your cabinets and do a quick inventory: ten different kinds of chicken soup, mac and cheese, cereal and pasta. Hmm. Pasta it is.
Now as much as we all love a big ‘ol bowl of spaghetti and sauce, that act gets boring, especially when entertaining your friends. So how about some alternatives? Ready to investigate pasta’s uncharted territories? With a little supermarket navigating and recipe research, you can impress your friends with your savvy culinary skills and spend no more time than you would throwing together some noodles and Prego.
Couscous will become one of your new staples, especially if you’re on a budget or pressed for time. A Middle Eastern dish, couscous looks like tiny yellow pearls and is prepared like rice. It’s easy to find in the pasta aisle of any supermarket.
I could wax philosophical about the wonders of couscous but I will just say this: buy it. You will be amazed. Couscous is a poor college student’s best friend: It’s cheap, makes a ton and literally tastes delicious with anything – not to mention that it cooks in less than five minutes. Think of couscous as your blank canvas and be an artist with your food! I promise: it’s almost impossible to screw this up. But, if you’re worried, here are a few suggestions to turn this groovy grain into a show-stopping entrée:
- Who says dried fruit is just for snacking? Add a handful of raisins, dried cranberries and dried apricots to the boiling water when you put in the couscous. The fruit will flavor the pasta, and plumpen while the pasta cooks. When it’s done, add chopped mint or parsley, and chopped almonds, and voilà! A pseudo-Moroccan meal in minutes!
- Want to travel to the Greek isles without stepping out the door? Refrigerate couscous immediately after cooking. While it’s cooling, chop up red onion, cucumber, tomatoes and parsley. Stir those into the couscous and mix everything with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. For an added kick, crumble in some feta cheese.
Quin-what? Pronounced “keen-wah,” this South American seed is just finding its way into mainstream cooking. Praised for its health benefits (it’s loaded with amino acids), this grain is a delicious alternative to pasta. Fluffy in texture and slightly nutty in taste, quinoa cooks in about 15 minutes and will impress (and mystify!) your guests. You can jazz up quinoa the same way you would couscous, but here’s another tip:
- While the quinoa is cooking, sauté precooked chicken and broccoli (you could also add green beans and/or peas) in a pan with two cloves of garlic and olive oil. Add cooked quinoa and stir in a handful of Parmesan cheese and whatever herbs you have on hand. Tell your friends you added herbs de Provence and you’ll take them on a food journey to France.
If you’re a noodle aficionado looking to spice up your spaghetti dinners, how about trying spaghetti’s Japanese cousin, udon? Udon noodles are thicker and slightly gummier than spaghetti, so they hold up well in both hot and cold dishes. Like the Italian pasta, these noodles cook in just twelve minutes and are perfect for weeknight meals. So the next time you’re wandering through Whole Foods, check out the Asian food section and pick some up.
- While the udon is cooking, combine peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh ginger and scallions in a bowl. Adjust amounts to your preferences and add some of the cooking water to thin out the sauce if necessary. Add udon and refrigerate until the whole dish has cooled. Toss in bean sprouts, sesame seeds and more scallions and you have cold noodles with sesame sauce in seconds.
- Craving a comforting bowl of soup? Boil noodles in low-sodium chicken stock and add baby carrots, celery and whatever other vegetables float your toy boat. Add cooked chicken toward the end if desired. Who says you can’t put a twist on homey staples?
So the next time you’re pressed for time and have friends coming for a meal, try out some of these recipes. They’re quick and easy, and I’m willing to bet your friends and your taste buds will be pleased.