My Mom's 15-Second Trick to Make Plain Weeknight Pasta Seem Fancy

A speedy formula for dinner, coming at you.

June 13, 2019

Nobody pulls off a 20-minute dinner quite like my parents.

They mastered the art of a quick supper when my sisters and I were young. It probably helped that they worked and carpooled together, which made it easy to plot on the way home and, when critical, pop into Southdown for last-minute basil recon.

Their coterie of recipes was deep: Marcella Hazan fettuccine riffs, tuna melts, matzoh brei, quesadillas on folded-over corn tortillas from which cheese oozed to form fricos on the hot griddle. At one point, despite being schmaltz-evangelists, they succumbed to the zeitgeist and purchased a George Foreman grill, which enabled a particularly obsessive spree of countertop chicken satay. They regularly served a shiitake mushroom and spinach dish called simply "Amy's Sauce," after their friend and fellow 20-minute dinner maven.

But my favorite of all was perhaps the most basic: ricotta pasta. Which is what we called a generous dollop of cold ricotta (a couple tablespoons, or more if you were having a bad day), swooshed onto a plate or bowl with the back of a spoon, topped with a bird's nest of hot al dente spaghetti and an unfussy marinara sauce.

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“My family’s favorite quick supper is simply cantaloupe, burrata, and prosciutto drizzled with basil olive oil and balsamic vinegar glaze. If we have crusty white bread on hand, I drizzle the glaze and oil on it before putting it in our panini press. If I have arugula on hand, we add that too. We all love this, including my kids—aged 5, 3, and 1. ”
— Kat

The trick of it lies in the application of ricotta to the serving vessel (plate versus bowl would be dealer's choice). Rather than mixing cheese in with saucy noodles, isolating it as a separate bottom layer fulfilled two purposes. It created textural diversity, which implied a multi-step production that lent the dish fancy restaurant vibes. And, it introduced an activity for the lucky recipient, who'd get to swirl each bite of sauce and spaghetti in the cold ricotta—a motion that I still suspect feels exactly like world domination.

The couple tablespoons of ricotta can be hidden underneath the nest—surprise!—or swooshed into a cheese halo around it. Photo by Rocky Luten

While I've always associated this plating strategy with my mom, recent scrutiny revealed a more shadowy provenance.

"It was something your dad first made me when we were living in Fort Greene in 1987," she told me by phone. "He seemed to have borrowed the trick from his brother Jeremy, and exercised it liberally apropos of discovering Pomi in a box."

Over time, their sauce formula developed into a speedy version that came together while water was boiling: Sauté a couple cloves of minced garlic in olive oil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid letting it brown. As soon as the garlic's soft, add whole peeled tomatoes you’ve crushed well with your hands, and cook just until it's hot all the way through and beginning to bubble. Add salt, remove from heat, and stir in lots of fresh shredded basil.

Or, use whichever sauce you like, marinara or otherwise. The ricotta swoosh would make a transcendent bed for a tangle of tagliatelle in herby pesto, or a bacon-y rigatoni alla vodka. It's a game-changer for any straightforward weeknight pasta, really, and after several decades, it remains my favorite of the 20-minute dinners.

No offense to the George Foreman chicken.

What's your go-to 20-minute dinner? Let me know in the comments!
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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches.


Julie June 20, 2019
OMG... the ricotta trick is next level genius. I’m thinking of a hefty puddle of it beneath Marcella Hazan’s genius tomato pasta loaded with basil. With her 5 tablespoons of butter and all that ricotta my arteries may seize up.... but what a way to go.
stresso June 17, 2019
Yum oh yum.
Kat June 16, 2019
I must try the ricotta trick the next time I have some homemade ricotta on hand!
My family’s favorite quick supper is simply cantaloupe, burrata, and prosciutto drizzled with basil olive oil and balsamic vinegar glaze. If we have crusty white bread on hand, I drizzle the glaze and oil on it before putting it in our panini press. If I have arugula on hand, we add that too. We all love this, including my kids—aged 5, 3, and 1.
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Ella Q. June 19, 2019
That sounds excellent!
Windischgirl June 16, 2019
We used to call this “Bowl Lasagne”—and would use pasta shapes, radiatore being the favorite. I didn’t invent it; the idea came from a parenting magazine’s list of 30-minute meals.
BTW, I’m a great skeptic of the 30-minute meal prep, since I was never able to do it, and once wrote a humorous essay on the timeline of getting one of these meals on the table. When my children were preschool age (5, 3, and 1), and my husband was NEVER HOME, a 30-minute meal prep could take upwards of 1 1/2 hrs, interrupted as it was with hygiene needs (theirs and mine and frequent hand washing), breaking up altercations, attempting to chop veggies with one hand as I’d be holding a kid with the other, and more adventures. I certainly could have used a Fairy Godmother or Mrs. Weasley in those days!
Now my kids are grown and we cook together, having the greatest fun hand-shaping pasta with one while another is making the sauce and the third is stirring up cocktails!
Kat June 16, 2019
You are so right! My own kids are 5, 3, and 1 now and my husband is never home either, and 20-30 minute suppers are never just that. I just call it a quick supper because quick to me is a hour or so 😂
I look forward to what you have now with your grown kids...especially the cocktails!
jennifer June 17, 2019
When you have kids, there is no such thing as a fast thing. Just loading the kids into the car takes 15 minutes. My friends used to laugh because I'd tell them that I started supper right after cleaning up the breakfast dishes; it's the only way it would be ready come evening. Chop some onions, rotate the laundry, read a story, chop some carrots, measure out spices, fold some laundry, play play dough for awhile, wash the lettuce, etc. Dinner prep in 30 minutes? Ha! It is an all day thing.
Diane June 15, 2019
One of my quick dinners is the ubiquitous bag of varied spring greens mixed with yesterday's leftover roasted vegetables, with a simple (homemade of course) oil/mustard/vinegar dressing topped with yesterday's leftover meat (sliced chicken, roast, whatever), and for crunch topped with whichever chopped salted nut I feel will go best. Quick, simple, economical and healthy too!
Melissa L. June 13, 2019
My quickie dinners are tacos, and sauteed shrimp with pasta. Both take only about 30 minutes.
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Ella Q. June 14, 2019
All excellent ideas!
HalfPint June 13, 2019
My go-to weeknight/quick meal/pasta is: hot cooked pasta tossed with creme fraiche and freshly grated parmesan or pecorino. If you want a little color, add some minced fresh herbs.
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Ella Q. June 14, 2019
Ooh, sounds perfect.
Emma L. June 13, 2019
Wow, I can't wait to do this every time I make pasta. Is that too much? No?
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Ella Q. June 13, 2019
Just enough, I think!
slatalla June 13, 2019
Love the cheese halo variation, a serious contender for dinner tonight
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Ella Q. June 13, 2019
Report back, please!
Tomoose June 13, 2019
I'm still half asleep because I read that as risotto not ricotta & thought 'Cold risotto? Yuck!' but ricotta... that sounds delicious!
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Ella Q. June 13, 2019
Much better than cold risotto! :)