Tweak pasta with unusual ingredients

Spaghetti cooked in red wine gets its color from the wine it is boiled in. There are no tomatoes in the sauce.

Bill Colvard

According to the International Pasta Organization, the average American consumes 19.4 pounds of pasta every year. The versatility of pasta is a good reason for this popularity. Equally good as a long, slow-cooked Sunday dinner, a quick supper or leftovers for lunch, pasta can fill a lot of needs.

Problem is, for most folks, the sauce always tastes the same. The usual suspects, red sauce, meat sauce and the occasional Alfredo, turn up all the time and can get a little tiresome after a while.

One way to mix things up is to try some unusual ingredients. Cream cheese, brisket, hummus, walnuts, even strawberries can be used to make pasta that will get noticed. Just because you’re going to eat 20 pounds of pasta every year doesn’t mean it all has to taste alike.

Even using a usual ingredient in a new way can really shake things up. Red wine, for instance, is not uncommon in all kinds of pasta sauces but what if, instead of putting the wine into the sauce, you boiled the pasta in it. As it turns out, turning water into wine really amps up the flavor of the pasta. Plain old spaghetti takes on a deep, complex flavor that doesn’t need much else to complete it. The alcohol burns off as the noodles cook, leaving the noodles with a deep, rich, complex flavor even without sauce. Parsley, walnuts, garlic, a little cheese, that’s about all you need to make it work. As an added bonus, the spaghetti is red after it’s cooked, or a reddish-purple, depending on what kind of wine you use.

Red-Wine Spaghetti with Walnuts and Parsley

5 cups water

1 bottle dry red wine


3/4 pound spaghetti

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1 cup walnuts (4 ounces), toasted and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Freshly ground black pepper

Pour out 1/4 cup red wine and reserve. Combine the water with the remaining wine in a pot with a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook, stirring, until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid.

In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the garlic and red pepper and season with salt. Cook over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add the reserved 1/4 cup of wine and the reserved cooking liquid and bring to a simmer. Stir in the pasta and cook until the liquid is nearly absorbed, 2 minutes. Add the parsley, nuts, the 1/2 cup of cheese and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and toss. Season the pasta with salt and pepper and serve, passing grated cheese at the table.

Spaghetti with Strawberries

Try this when you’re feeling really adventurous. Strawberries and aged balsamic vinegar is a natural flavor combo but be sure and use real San Marzano tomatoes. Other kinds of tomatoes may not have enough sweetness to pull this off.

1 pound dried spaghetti

4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing

1 pound ripe strawberries, cleaned and halved

2 tbsp. good aged balsamic vinegar

1 cup San Marzano tomato purée

4 ounces reserved pasta water

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated Parmesan, for serving (optional)

Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water until al dente. In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil and half of the strawberries over medium heat. Cook until the strawberries start to release juice. Add balsamic and reduce by half. Add tomato purée, the rest of the strawberries, and the reserved pasta water, and reduce by half again until the sauce thickens. Season to taste. Toss with spaghetti. Finish with olive oil and black pepper.

Mediterranean Hummus Noodles with Blistered Cherry Tomatoes.

Hummus is so good by itself it’s actually surprising that it isn’t more often used as an ingredient in other things. This recipe is also a good way to use up cherry tomatoes that are at the end of their shelf life.

2 cup cherry tomatoes

12 baby bell peppers

4 tbsp. olive oil, divided

pinch of salt and pepper

3/4 pound thin spaghetti

3/4 cup hummus

1 cup pasta cooking water

2 tbsp. basil pesto

1 cup fresh basil

pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

1/3 cup toasted pine nuts, chopped

1/4 cup kalamata olives, chopped

1 tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.While the water comes to a boil, heat a grill or grill pan to high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and toss in the tomatoes and baby bell peppers with a pinch of salt and pepper. Grill the peppers until grill marks appear on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. If using an outdoor grill, place the tomatoes on skewers and grill for 30 seconds per “side” or until the tomatoes just start to blister. Remove from the heat. Set aside.Once the water is boiling, boil the pasta until al dente. Just before draining the pasta, reserve at least 1 cup of the cooking water. This is SO important as the water is used to make the sauce. Drain the pasta.Add the hummus, pesto, basil and crushed red pepper flakes to a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add 1 cup of pasta water to the hummus mixture and whisk to combine. Add the hot pasta, toss well to combine. Allow the noodles to sit five minutes so the sauce has time to thicken.Grab half of the blistered tomatoes from earlier. Add them to a bowl and lightly mash with a fork, be careful, they will splatter. Stir in the pine nuts, olives, oregano, balsamic vinegar and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.Divide the pasta among bowls and top with the tomato sauce, grilled peppers and the remaining blistered tomatoes. Add a handful of feta.

Slow cooked shredded beef ragu pasta

Sometimes, when brisket or chuck roast or London broil is on sale, it can cost the same as hamburger. Invest some time to cook those tougher cuts until they’re fall-apart tender and you’ll have a thick meat sauce (called a ragu) that is so rich and delicious, no ground beef based sauce can compete with it.

2.5 lb. beef brisket or any other slow cooking beef, cut into equal 4 pieces

1 tbsp. salt

Black pepper

3 tbsp. olive oil, separated

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, diced

1 cup carrots, diced

1 cup celery, diced

28 oz. can crushed canned tomatoes

3 tbsp. tomato paste

2 beef bouillon cubes

3 cups water

3 dried bay leaves

Extra salt and pepper, to taste

1 lb. dried spaghetti or other pasta of choice (rigatoni and pappardelle are ideal)

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)

Pat beef dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over high heat in a heavy based pot. Add beef and sear each piece on all sides until browned (around 3 minutes in total), then remove onto a plate. Turn stove down to medium low and add remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil. Add garlic and onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Then add the carrots and celery and sauté slowly for 5 minutes. Add remaining sauce ingredients (except extra salt and pepper) and return the beef to the pot (add the juices too). Turn the stove up and bring it to a simmer, then turn it down to low. Cover the pot and let it cook for 1 hr 45 minutes. Then remove the lid and let it cook for a further 30 minutes until the beef is tender enough to pull apart with forks and the liquid has reduced to be a thick sauce. Do a taste test and adjust the seasoning to your taste with salt and pepper. Also, add a little but of sugar (1/2 tsp at a time!) if it is a bit sour for your taste. Turn the stove off and remove the beef from the sauce into a large bowl. Shred it coarsely with two forks. Then return it to the sauce. Place the lid on and set aside until ready to serve (it’s even better the next day).

To Serve: Bring a very large pot of water with 1 tbsp of salt to the boil. Add pasta and cook for 2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time as per the packet instructions. Meanwhile, place 5 cups of the Ragu in a very large fry pan, or use 2 normal size fry pans. Heat over high heat while the pasta is cooking. When the pasta is ready, transfer it directly from the pot into the fry pan using tongs. Add 1 cup of pasta water into the fry pan. Gently toss the pasta (use 2 wooden spoons) for 1 to 2 minutes, until the sauce water evaporates and leaves you with a thick Ragu sauce that coats the pasta. Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan, or even better, with parmigiano reggiano.

This can be made in a slow cooker – 6 hours on low – but at the end, you will need to remove the beef and transfer the sauce to a pot and simmer until it reduces.

One Pot Vegetarian Pesto Tortellini

The mystery ingredient here is cream cheese.

1 tbsp olive oil

2 cups baby bella mushrooms (sliced)

4 cloves garlic (minced)

4 cups fresh baby spinach

12 oz cheese tortellini

2 ½ cups vegetable broth

1 tbsp fresh oregano (chopped)

¾ cup sun dried tomato pesto

2 oz cream cheese (cubed)

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

¼ cup sun dried tomatoes

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the mushrooms and saute 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and spinach, saute 2-3 minutes. Add the tortellini, vegetable broth and oregano, stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Cover and reduce heat to low, cook 7-8 minutes. Add the sun-dried tomato pesto, cream cheese and parmesan cheese, stir until the cheese melts into the dish, allow to cook on low for another 3-4 minutes. Remove from the heat and top with the sun dried tomatoes.

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