The New Weeknight Pasta

By Jess Thomson

Who are we kidding? Dinner is rarely actually “easy” to make. And when things get hectic—during the holidays, while we have company, or when a teetering work-life balance threatens to knock us off our feet—we often turn to food that’s unhealthy and uninteresting.

When asking for a complete diet overhaul is overkill but you’re tired of rehashing the same meals, think about revamping old stand-bys. Pasta is a reliable weeknight staple for a reason: It’s relatively quick, and it satisfies eaters of all ages. The good news is that we can achieve the same goals without submitting to boredom. Here are three new favorites to add to your repertoire; each is a twist on something that’s probably already familiar to you. Try making the Spicy Peanut Rice Noodles with a store-bought rotisserie chicken, or with turkey if you have holiday leftovers—it’s a slam-dunk for anyone in love with pad Thai. Next, take an old classic in a different direction with Kale, Pepperoni and Lemon Carbonara, which packs in a few more vitamins than the traditional version. Or lean into a more plant-based diet by serving Rigatoni with Quick Meatless Harissa Bolognese, which shows you new shortcuts to adding deep flavor in very little time. Then let creativity take over—the best variation is the one you create yourself!

Rigatoni with Quick Meatless Harissa Bolognese

Modernize your weeknight spaghetti and meat sauce dinner with a few easy changes: First, start your sauce by browning a mixture of tomato, Japanese miso, and spunky harissa pastes, which infuse regular jarred sauce with a complex, cooked-all-day flavor in a matter of minutes. Then make the night meatless by trying one of the great new meatless “meats” available in most grocery stores now, which are often sold precooked—another time-saving step. You’ll wind up with an accidentally vegan meal with rich, deep flavor that satisfies everyone at the table (unless, of course, you can’t do pasta without Parm).

TIME: 20 minutes
YIELD: 4 servings

  • 1 pound rigatoni or short pasta alternative
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons white miso
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons harissa paste, to taste
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 (24-ounce) jar high-quality pasta sauce (about 3 cups)
  • 12 ounces meatless precooked ground “beef,” 1 pound uncooked meatless “beef,” cooked and crumbled, or 1 pound regular ground beef or turkey, cooked or crumbled
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Torn or julienned basil, for serving (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente according to package instructions. (If your meat isn’t precooked, do that while the water boils, then drain before using.)

2. While the pasta cooks, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onion, and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Add the tomato paste, miso, harissa paste, and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, for another 3 minutes or so, or until the paste has turned a shade darker in color and coats the bottom of the pan. Add 1 cup of water, stir to combine and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan, then add the pasta sauce, bring to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is as thick as you like it. Add the meat (the finer the crumbles the better), then stir and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

3. When the pasta is done, drain it and return to the pot, then add the sauce and toss with tongs until well blended. Serve immediately, topped with basil and cheese, if using.

Spicy Peanut Rice Noodles with Mint and Rotisserie Chicken

While many of us think of something that leans Italian when we’re heading toward a weeknight pasta, the method is equally convenient using other types of noodles and a huge variety of flavors. Throw together this peanut sauce in the time it takes to boil water for rice noodles, tear into a fragrant rotisserie chicken, and you’ve got a Southeast Asian-inspired noodle dish that reheats well for lunch the next day with a splash of water. Stir in thinly sliced red bell pepper, cooked broccoli, or sliced snap peas to up the greens quotient.

Of course, leftover turkey would be a great substitute for the shredded chicken. (While you’re at it, try these noodles with tofu.) Look for rice noodles in the ethnic section of a well-stocked grocery store. If the label is in a language you don’t know, look for something labeled “M,” for size medium.

TIME: 30 minutes
YIELD: 4 servings

  • 1 (14-ounce/400-gram) package wide rice noodles or pad Thai noodles
  • 1 cup creamy natural peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 large garlic clove, grated
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons chili-garlic sauce or Sriracha, to taste
  • 1 or 2 serrano or Thai chilies (green or red), finely chopped (seeds and all), or to taste
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions (white and green parts)
  • 2 packed cups shredded rotisserie chicken, turkey, or chopped tofu
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 cup roasted, salted peanuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges for serving

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the noodles.

2. In a medium bowl, mash together the peanut butter (don’t worry if it’s clumpy at this point), fish sauce, ginger, garlic, chili-garlic sauce, and chilies. Set aside.

3. When the water boils, add the noodles and cook just until al dente, 4 to 5 minutes (or according to package instructions). While the noodles are cooking, set aside 3 cups of the cooking liquid. Drain the noodles and rinse well with cold water to remove any excess starch.

4. Put the pasta pot back on the stove over low heat. Add 2 cups of the reserved water and the peanut butter mixture, and whisk until combined and bubbling. Add the scallions and chicken and stir until all the chicken is coated, then add the noodles and toss with tongs until the sauce is distributed, adding some of the remaining water if the sauce seems too thick. (You may need more or less depending on the peanut butter you use. The noodles should look slippery.) Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the mint and cilantro.

5. Divide the noodles between bowls and top with the peanuts and lime wedges, plus any herbs and scallions you may have floating around on a cutting board. Serve immediately.

Kale, Pepperoni, and Lemon Carbonara

Carbonara is the benchmark for a quick, easy, satisfying meal, but if you think outside the box, it can also pack a healthy dose of greens without taking much more time. Start by sautéing sliced kale in olive oil, then stir in pepperoni instead of guanciale or pancetta to save a little cash and add just the right amount of spice. Tossed with a lighter version of the traditional egg and cheese sauce, and spiked with lemon zest and black pepper, it feels like carbonara reborn—but still recognizably indulgent.

TIME: 25 minutes
YIELD: 4 servings

  • 1 pound fettucine, spaghetti, or long pasta alternative
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch (about 7 ounces) lacinato or dinosaur kale, ribs removed, cut into 1/4-inch strips
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 ounces pepperoni (pork or turkey), cut into 1/4-inch strips (about 1 cup total)
  • 1 lightly packed cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Zest of 2 large lemons

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente according to package instructions.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil. When hot, add the garlic and kale, season with salt and plenty of pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until the kale has wilted, about 3 minutes. Add the pepperoni and cook another 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pepperoni is crisp and beginning to curl. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the Parmesan, egg yolks, cream, lemon zest, and a good grind of black pepper with a fork until blended. Set aside.

4. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta-cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta and return to the pot (off the heat). Add 1 cup of the reserved water, the kale mixture, and the cheese sauce, and toss vigorously with tongs until most of the liquid is absorbed. (You can add more liquid if the sauce feels too thick.) Serve immediately, garnished with freshly ground black pepper.