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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“It was served piping hot with a big dollop of whipped ricotta on top that just melted over it like volcanic lava. It was sublime. Flash forward 20 some years later and with that recipe still stuck in my head and the advent of the internet at my fingertips, I was fortunate enough to find a book of Kuletto's recipes and in it, that amazing pasta that just wouldn't leave my head like a bad song. Turns out I was making it almost identically all those years! Moral of the story; try the ricotta on top sometimes as well, you won't be disappointed!”
— Michele

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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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist 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.


phil E. July 14, 2019
Thanks for this really neat trick,
kids get involved with just how they want to texture each bite of pasta.
Michele July 14, 2019
Many moons ago on my honeymoon in San Fransisco, I had a pasta dish at the (now closed) Kuleto's Italian restaurant. It was so amazing I immediately went home to try and re-create it. It was a penne with a homemade lamb sausage sauce that incorporated swiss chard in the sauce. It was served piping hot with a big dollop of whipped ricotta on top that just melted over it like volcanic lava. It was sublime. Flash forward 20 some years later and with that recipe still stuck in my head and the advent of the internet at my fingertips, I was fortunate enough to find a book of Kuletto's recipes and in it, that amazing pasta that just wouldn't leave my head like a bad song. Turns out I was making it almost identically all those years! Moral of the story; try the ricotta on top sometimes as well, you won't be disappointed!
Lauren B. July 14, 2019
This sounds very nice. Since I was very young I've been putting hot things on top of a layer of cottage cheese, to the horror of those around me. I feel a little bit vindicated.
Eric K. July 15, 2019
Love that.
Chris B. July 14, 2019
We’re doing the ricotta ring from now on. Always have ricotta in fridge but sometimes gets pushed to back and forgotten. This keeps it up front. Also thanks to momcat for reminding me of the perfection of simple olive oil & Romano.

My go-to quick dinner is an expanded version of our favorite Italian potato and octopus primi—a bed of sliced potatoes topped with octopus and vinaigrette. We make our dinner version on a platter. I build from a scant bed arugula, escarole, or bitter radicchio. On that, layer cold sliced potatoes, then top with meat, ideally culled from leftovers. Our favs are thin slices of cold prime rib (if there’s any leftover jus, drizzle it over the meat), steak, slices of roast or smoked chicken breast (dark meat gets gone on the first round), grilled or poached salmon, or some quickly cooked shrimp. (Also, not to forget octopus.) I usually pile the ends with leftover or fresh-blanched veggies—green beans, asparagus, carrots, squash. On top I strew pickled or salted onion. Sometimes I add diced tomatoes, shaved fennel, cucumbers, etc. Beat up a simple vinaigrette, adjusted to the composition, ie using lemon juice for fish, dry mustard and horseradish for beef. I set a pile of warmed, sliced flatbread nearby because it’s fun to pick from the platter to make little pita concoctions.
patricia G. July 14, 2019
Instead of ricotta, we often put greens in the bottom of our pasta bowls - julienned Tuscan kale glossed with a few drops of olive oil, or small leaves of spinach or mustard greens if we have them. The greens will soften slightly under the warm heap of pasta. With a creamy pasta that can use a little acidic counterpoint, try a shredded lettuce that will stand up to heat like romaine, or arugula leaves, tossed with the barest drip of wine vinegar and salt. Faster than a side-salad and you get a nice co-mingling of flavors.
Ella Q. July 14, 2019
Sounds excellent!
Alice July 14, 2019
I LOVE the look of this! We eat first with our eyes, correct?! I'm so doing this the next time I have ricotta. I love twirling. I guess one of my fast-prep meals that's NOT pasta is sweet potato hash; dice up (never mind peeling) a large washed sweet potato, throw in a skillet with some diced onion and stir often to brown the potatoes on all sides. Could also start out with some diced bacon... Finish with a fried egg on the top and sprinkle it all with some fresh thyme. Pretty quick, and all in one skillet.
icharmeat July 21, 2019
My brother makes a hash like this with linguica standing in for bacon. It is fabulous. Cut the linguica links in quarters and slice the quarters so the pieces are a bit smaller than than the sweet potato dice and be sure there is plenty of onion. This would be a Sunday brecky regular in my house if my wife didn't have an aversion to sweet potatoes.
Rebecca L. July 14, 2019
I have some red vodka sauce in the refrigerator and ricotta. Spaghetti for dinner tonight!
rancecool July 14, 2019
MOMA used to have a meatball/marinara version of this. Very excellent. I appropriated it immediately and will do the same with this. Thanks.
Adrienne B. July 7, 2019
I love the reference to quesadillas with corn tortillas instead of flour. For me, that's the ONLY way to go.
chefrockyrd July 6, 2019
Never had it on the bottom. Yours may be prettier.
Ours was whipped ricotta and then it was dolloped on top. Then you mixed it in with each bite of pasta. Genius? Well I don't think so but I guess if you didn't grow up with it then maybe you would think so.
Sharon July 14, 2019
Rachel Ray shared her "dollop (plop?) of ricotta on top" well over a decade ago. Been doing it ever since. Fun and delish.
momcat July 4, 2019
Our favorite quickie dinner: angel hair pasta with lots of sliced garlic heated to light brown in a 1/2 C or so in olive oil, Toss with pasta and a generous handful of chopped fresh or frozen parsley. Generous serving of GENUINE Romano on top. (For best flavor. Pre canned tastes funky to us. but in an emergency it is OK.) If you eat it on Saturday night, be prepared to have two vacant pews around you in church on Sunday. Which is why I usually serve it on Friday nights.
Victoria M. July 1, 2019
Wow, your parents sound amazing! And we def need the recipe for Amy's Sauce!
Timildeepson July 6, 2019
I agree!! Totally need the recipe for Amy's sauce, please!
MrsMehitabel July 18, 2019
I third that. Amy's sauce sounds wonderful.
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.
Woozie July 14, 2019
Julie, I figure if I'm headed for osteoporosis, at least the hardened arteries will hold me up when my bones can't...
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.
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.
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.
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?
Ella Q. June 13, 2019
Just enough, I think!