Before I packed in my job last Fall we had some pretty serious budgeting conversations. My salary wasn’t great, but it was something and the loss of it meant we had to tighten our belts. Within our budget the main area with some flexibility was food. Our food costs were astronomic. Each week I would plan out the week, buy the groceries plus even more vegetables, because vegetables are good for you. The vegetables would go to waste before using them. Basically, at the end of the day we were both tired and eating out or eating some already prepared/processed meal was easier.
We’ve cut our food budget by more than a half. I cook a lot more now, but part of that is also about finding recipes that taste great, but are easy. Living in Italy, specifically Tuscany, taught me several really important things about cooking:
1. Simple cooking can be really, really tasty if you chose your ingredients well.
2. Buying the seasonal fruit and veg isn’t just cheaper it is tastier.
One of my go-to dishes is from Debbie Koenig of Words to Eat By, the Hail Mary Pasta. She posted it back in April of 2009 and I think I made it that night and I’ve probably made it at least thirty times since. However, the first time I cooked it when we came back to the US it just wasn’t as good. What did I do wrong? I asked. Ahhhh, the tomatoes. The tomatoes weren’t the greatest. In Italy, they sell vegetables only when they are in season and look at you askance if you ask for something out of season so it was with farm fresh vegetables that I first made the Hail Mary Pasta. The Hail Mary Pasta is incredible with fresh flavorful tomatoes. I’d argue to not make it out of tomato and zucchini season it just spoils it. I didn’t give up and tried again with greater success, when the tomatoes were in season.
Time for Hail Mary Pasta. We had a special occasion too. A play date with one of our favourite neighbours, Ms. Berta. An opportunity to thank her for looking after the kitties while we were away. Time with Ms. Berta is always fun and fancy. Got to love a friend who will eat her whole meal wearing a fancy mask and tulle. It was a grand success. Of course, we also had chianti (Yes, at lunchtime. What of it?) and gelato from our local real Italian gelato place Allegro Gelato.
Ms. Berta wanted the recipe and so I thought I’d share it with all, Debbie gave me permission, in fact she gave me the updated version which will be coming out in her first book, Parents Need to Eat Too published by Harper Paperbacks. I’ve known Debbie for nigh on 6 years. It was through an online community that I found her and her blog, and also got to be one of the recipe testers in her new book. Debbie’s recipes make up the go to recipes in our household. The book comes out in January 2012 and I can’t wait to see it and try out more recipes. Consider this a sneak peak to her book. I have another to share when my mint is ready.
NB. The only difference I ALWAYS make is use Parmiganno Reggiano rather than Parmesan. I think Debbie does too, but it does cost a little more. I think it is worth every penny. Debbie has a fabulous Luxe on a Budget post on Weight Watchers about ingredients worth spending a little extra on which I love.
Hail Mary Pasta
Serves 4 to 6
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
This was born out of desperation, a last-minute realization that Stephen and Harry were on their way home from the playground and would be expecting dinner, pronto. As long as you cut it into small, quick-cooking pieces, you can substitute almost any vegetable for the zucchini—whatever’s in the fridge, threatening to spoil—but don’t skip the tomatoes. The sweet juices they release are the base of the sauce.
2 pints grape or cherry tomatoes
2 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
One 12- to 14.5-ounce box whole-grain pasta (I like Barilla Plus penne)
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Preheat the oven to 500°F.
1. Put a big pot of salted water over high heat; cover it to make it boil faster.
2. Toss everything but the pasta and the cheese into a rectangular baking dish and stir. Put the dish in the oven before the water boils, if you can manage it.
3. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook according to package directions, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
4. While the pasta is cooking, give the baking dish a hearty shake every 5 minutes. If you’re lucky, the tomatoes will burst before the pasta’s done. If not, drain the pasta and put the colander over the pasta pot, then put the pot’s lid on top of the pasta to keep it warm.
5. When the tomatoes burst and look lusciously goopy, the sauce is done. Pour a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water into the baking dish and stir it around, to get all the good stuff off the bottom and sides. Pour the pasta back into the pot, dump in the sauce, and stir. If it seems too dry, add the rest of the reserved cooking water.
6. Serve topped with the grated Parmesan cheese. Hail Mary.
MAKE BABY FOOD: This one’s all good—either pureed or as finger food; the only concern for finger food would be if the tomato skins are too tough for a wee’un. Depending on which pasta you use, you may want to give it a quick chop to prevent the possibility of choking.
“Oh my goodness, we loved this pasta. The sauce was really nice, not too heavy, not too oily, but tasty and refreshing. My husband is picky, doesn’t like vegetables or pasta salads so I was worried that he might not like this. Turns out that he loved it. It wasn’t too difficult to chop up the zucchini, and it was nice to throw together the vegetables, put them in the oven and let them sit tight while I worked on the rest of dinner. So, easy, delicious and healthy.” –Monica W., mom of one, St. Louis, MO