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.
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.
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!
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).
Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.