I’ve never been that person who plans the weeks’ meals in advance. I tried that for awhile, intently reading through cookbooks or rifling through my over-stuffed recipe box, putting colored-coded Post-its on dishes I’d always wanted to make. I’d fast forward in my mind to my family’s dazzlement of the crazy good dinner I whipped up, marveling at my creativity. How do you do this, they’d ask. All this variety and creativity, how marvelous!
Those daydreams were short lived obviously. In no time, I became exhausted trying to reinvent the wheel every night. When I lamented to a friend about my kitchen failures, she first burst out laughing and then, in all her motherhood practicality and experience said, “Look. You’ve got to simplify things. We have a chart at our house, and it goes like this: Meatless Monday, Tuesday Taco Night, Wednesday Wok Night…and on through to Saturday Sandwiches.” Within those categories, she’d given herself plenty of leeway: Taco night might be a taco salad, grilled fajitas with tomatillo salsa, or black bean burritos (all close enough in her mind), but she had a starting point. It streamlined dinner planning and saved her sanity. And also gave her kids a structure they thrived on—friends were sure to drop in uninvited on Taco Tuesday (although she noticed when her kids became teens they always seemed to have plans on Fish Fridays).
I haven’t followed her advice every weekday, or even every week, but I have backed off from trying to win Top Chef on a nightly basis. We have Pasta Night and Casserole Night, and summertime BBQ Night is a family favorite. They just don’t always fall on the same day of the week. And within those categories, we’ve discovered a universe of variations, so it never feels like the same old, same old.
Like pasta. Can you ever run out of new pasta recipes to try? And who ever gets tired of pasta? Not me, not ever. And not tonight.
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1⁄2 lb (500 g) jumbo shells
- 2 teaspoon olive oil, plus more for greasing
- 5 oz (155 g) arugula leaves, tough stems removed
- 3 cups (24 oz/750 g) whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 6 tablespoons (1 1⁄2 oz / 45 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1 1⁄2 cups (12 fl oz / 375 ml) Amatriciana Sauce (see below)
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta shells and cook for about 2 minutes less than the package directions call for. Drain well and arrange in a single layer on an oiled baking sheet. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Warm the olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the arugula and sauté until just wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and, when cool enough to handle, chop finely. Set aside.
- In a bowl, stir together the ricotta, 4 tablespoons (1 oz/30 g) of the Parmesan, and the egg. Stir in the chopped arugula and season with salt and pepper.
- Spread 1⁄4 cup (2 fl oz/60 ml) of the amatriciana sauce on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch (23-by-33-cm) baking dish. Using a teaspoon, fill each shell with the ricotta mixture. The shells should be full but not bursting open. Place each filled shell, open side up, in the sauce in the baking dish. Cover the shells with the remaining 1 1⁄4 cups (10 fl oz/ 315 ml) sauce and sprinkle evenly with the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan.
- Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is melted, about 25 minutes. Let cool slightly and serve.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 oz (125 g) guanciale, pancetta, or unsmoked bacon, chopped
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 3 cloves garlic, minced Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper 1 can (28 oz / 875 g) crushed tomatoes
- 1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
- Warm the oil in a saucepan, and add the guanciale. Cook the meat until it is crispy, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes and then add the onion. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper flakes, the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook until garlic softens, 1—2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes with their juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add the oregano, and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- Use right away, or let the sauce cool completely before storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 2 months.