I like to pretend I'm a food writer, but really, for most of the day, I'm a teacher. These two tasks are really related, right? In both cases, one has to figure out what's important, make it clear, and enthusiastically pass it on to someone else so they want to try it too. (Convincing people they want to learn how to make a pie? Convincing someone they want to try to read long vowel words? Sure, they're the same thing.)
All that to say that, there are certain times of the year — at the beginning of the school year and the end of the school year — that really kick my buttons. No kidding around. Just worn out. Done. Maybe your life is like that too, with cycles of busy times that ebb and flow. Sometimes you're really good at taking care of yourself and making good choices and conquering the day — and sometimes it's all you can do to put milk on cereal and call it dinner.
And if there's one thing that has saved me when times are tough, it's having easy, comforting dishes in my repertoire.
Another thing I've wised up about in the last couple of years is that we might have been lying to ourselves about cooking pasta in big pots of pasta water. I have done no scientific tests or read anyone else's overly scientific food blogs, but I've really noticed myself enjoying pasta recipes that cook the pasta in less water. With this easy technique, you make a main dish that sauces itself with big flavor and small clean-up.
From my crazy season to yours, I hope you save this recipe for that time when you need it and enjoy.
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Salt to taste, according to your broth's salt level
1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni (or other pasta shape with an indicated cooking time of about 10 minutes)
About 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan (or blend of your favorite grated cheese)
1. In a large skillet, melt the butter and cook the onion and garlic over medium-low heat for a few minutes until soft. Season with a few shakes of salt and pepper.
2. Add in the broth and bring just to a boil.
3. Add the pasta, stir, and let cook uncovered at a nice simmer for about 15 minutes until most of the broth is absorbed. Stir every once in a while to prevent sticking.
4. Pour in the cream and let simmer for a couple minutes.
5. Stir and add Parmesan and cream cheese. Cook for 1 minutes.
6. Taste for salt and pepper and serve.
Green: Toss about 1 cup frozen peas into the skillet when you add the cream. Or, add some handfuls of chopped fresh spinach right before you add the cream cheese and Parm.
Herby: Add chopped herbs to the butter and onion at the end of their cooking time, stir around, then immediately add the stock and proceed as planned.
Less creamy stuff: Omit the cream and cream cheese, add in a few dabs of butter before the Parm.
DIY: Cook something with the onion. Choose anything that doesn't absorb water, like chopped chicken, zucchini or mushrooms. Proceed with the rest of the steps.
Pro tip: Keeping a minced onion and garlic combo in your freezer really cuts down on prep for many meals. Food process 2 onions and a head of peeled garlic until fine, spread thinly into a plastic freezer bag, freeze, and then break off however much you need when you need it. Voila. Big flavor, no nightly chopping.
Anne Willhoit is an educator, community volunteer, and enthusiastic baker who likes to create recipes that use from-scratch techniques and are inspired by local, seasonal ingredients. Find her on Instagram at @aawillhoit or drop her an inquiry at FromScratchKS@gmail.com.