Melt Mom's heart with a pasta dinner

  • Article by: JEANMARIE BROWNSON , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2014 - 3:15 PM

With a few helpful hints, a tasty dinner for Mom can be made with minimal effort or shopping.

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Bucatini pasta with lemon, tuna and capers is a simple dish to prepare for Mom on Mother’s Day.

Photo: Bill Hogan • Chicago Tribune,

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For more than three decades as a food professional, my days have centered on food — from wrangling recipes and groceries, to ingredient research, to tastings in a test kitchen. So when the kids ask what I want for Mother’s Day, the answer is simple: Cook for me.

Nothing exotic, I tell them, and if you search the pantry and freezer, you won’t even need to shop. Start with pasta. Skip the bottled red sauce (reminds me too much of my work). Keep things healthy. Use your imagination.

Over the years, my now-grown children have created quite an array of simple pasta meals concocted from ingredients on hand. When the herb garden flourishes, things taste even brighter.

First, I suggest from the sidelines, pair the pasta shape to complement the sauce/toppings. Pick hollow pasta such as rigatoni for saucy toppings such as cream sauces or marinara. Choose flat pastas, such as linguine and fettuccine, for sauteed or chunky toppings such as diced vegetables, shredded meats or fish. Coordinate the size of the pasta with the size of the add-ins; tiny orzo goes well with cooked peas, and penne pairs nicely with broccoli florets.

We usually have some type of fully cooked protein in the fridge or freezer that lends itself to a speedy meal. These treasures, such as fully cooked sausages, require little more than heating and cutting to mix with pasta. A piece of cooked pot roast or pork shoulder can be shredded and mixed with marinara sauce for a very simple rendition of a homemade ragu we enjoy over wide egg noodles.

Frozen cooked shrimp proves easy for all: An overnight thaw in the fridge takes no skill. To serve, I gently advise a sauté of sweet onion and fresh garlic, before wilting in fresh baby spinach, the thawed shrimp and cooked “fancy” pasta (such as rotini or orecchiette).

Here are three of our family’s go-to pasta recipes. The first, penne with broccoli, is a gussied-up variation of the pasta with broccoli and cheese I have made my son nearly every week of his life. His grown-up version features plenty of fresh garlic, raisins, nuts and a generous dash of hot flakes. Everyone in our house loves tuna. My daughter pairs good-quality canned tuna with toothsome bucatini pasta (long, fat strands with a hole running down the length) and plenty of fresh lemon and parsley. She adds the olives and capers for me. Using dried mushrooms may not be my kids’ cup of tea, but since I enjoy them, they’ll soak a few to sauté with sausage and vegetables for serving over tender wide pasta.

With minimal supervision, the recipes can be made by young teens on up. Any mother would be proud to be served them (on a pretty plate, please). The only caveat when the kids cook: Clean up when you’re done!

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