Fall pastas full of flavor, low on fuss

The secrets to carefree weekday pasta dinners? First, stock the fixings. Dried pastas, tinned tomatoes, hard grating cheese, fully cooked meatballs or sausage, dried herbs and olive oil. Second, prep a few things in advance. I roast vegetables, make sauces, saute onions and mushrooms, slip an extra ear or two of corn into the pot, even cook ground meat a day or two ahead. At dinner time, I simply reheat ingredients and boil water.

The recipes that follow are my homage to the waning days of farmers markets and farm stands. I’m happily buying up the last of the local tomatoes, corn, eggplant and fresh peppers. With any luck, there are still herbs in the garden for a quick pesto or to flavor a creamy sauce.

The cilantro-almond pesto here uses lots of fresh cilantro and no cheese, which makes a light sauce for flat pastas such as fettucine, linguine or tagliatelle. I also add a little fresh basil because I love the slight licorice taste it imparts.

Make the pesto several days in advance and refrigerate it in a jar. Always cover the pesto with a thick film of olive oil as a barrier to prevent browning. Then remove the pesto from the refrigerator so it can warm to room temperature before tossing it with the hot pasta.

Time-crunched? Use store-bought pesto with some chopped fresh cilantro stirred into it. Likewise, feel free to substitute frozen meatballs for the homemade chicken version below. Another fast option is to simply slice fully cooked chicken sausage and brown the slices to serve with the pesto pasta.

The meatballs can be formed several hours ahead of cooking and refrigerated. Once cooked, they will keep about two days in the refrigerator.

Creamy pasta tempts me every time. For the version here, the sauce is made from egg yolks, mascarpone and cheese — no cooking required. Roasted eggplant and shishito peppers cut the richness. If you’d like, brown 1/2 pound of Italian sausage or ground pork and add it to the dish for an indulgently rich main course.

FETTUCINE WITH CILANTRO-ALMOND PESTO AND CHICKEN MEATBALLS

For the chicken and spinach meatballs:

1 large egg, beaten

1 lb. ground chicken (or turkey)

1/2 c. panko or dried breadcrumbs

1/2 c. chopped fresh baby spinach or arugula

2 green onions, thinly sliced or 2 T. dried chives

1/2 small jalapeno, seeded, minced, optional

1 t. salt

1/2 t. dried basil

1/4 t. each: dried oregano, black pepper

For the cilantro-almond pesto:

1/2 c. blanched whole, sliced or slivered almonds, 2 1/2 oz.

2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 c. loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves (OK to leave on small stems)

1/2 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves, chopped (about 1 ounce total)

1/2 c. olive oil

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 t. lemon oil

1/2 t. salt

1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper

Expeller-pressed canola, safflower or sunflower oil

1 lb. fettuccine noodles, or linguine or tagliatelle

1 1/2 c. cooked or roasted corn kernels, optional

1 1/2 c. roughly chopped fresh ripe tomatoes (or a 15-oz. can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, drained)

Fresh herb sprigs

Grated queso anejo, cotija or asiago cheese

For the meatballs, lightly beat the egg in a large bowl. Add remaining meatball ingredients in the order listed. Use clean hands to combine. Form 16 meatballs, each 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Place them on a baking sheet. Refrigerate, covered, about 30 minutes (or up to 12 hours).

For the pesto, process almonds in a high-speed blender or food processor until finely chopped. Add garlic, cilantro and basil. With machine running, add oil and 1 tablespoon water in a slow steady stream until mixture is smooth. Scrape into a bowl; stir in lemon zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Coat the skillet lightly with canola oil. Add meatballs in an uncrowded layer. Cover with a splatter guard. Cook, turning often, until golden brown on all sides, 12 to 14 minutes. (Reduce heat to medium-low to avoid over-browning.) Use warm or refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days. Reheat gently in the microwave before using.

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add fettuccine and cook, stirring often, until al dente (nearly tender when a strand is bitten), about 10 minutes. Scoop out and save about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta. Pour into a large heated serving bowl. Top with pesto; toss to mix. Add dribbles of the reserved cooking water if needed to loosen things up a bit. Add corn and tomatoes. Toss gently. Add meatballs. Garnish with herb sprigs.

Serve right away, passing the cheese at the table. Makes 5 to 6 servings

Roasted eggplant adds depth to a creamy penne dish. Getty Images

CREAMY PENNE WITH PANCETTA, ROASTED EGGPLANT AND SHISHITO PEPPERS

1/2 c. mascarpone or creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream (not sour cream)

2 pasteurized egg yolks

1/2 c. finely shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese

1/2 t. fresh minced thyme leaves or 1/4 t. dried

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large eggplant, about 1 1/4 lbs., ends trimmed

3 T. olive oil

Salt

Smoked sweet paprika, optional

Expeller-pressed canola, safflower or sunflower oil

2 to 3 c. small shishito peppers, patted dry, stems removed OR thick slices red or orange bell pepper

1/2 to 3/4 c. (3 to 4 oz.) sliced pancetta or lean bacon, diced

12 to 14 oz. penne or rigatoni

Chopped fresh chives or parsley, or a combination

Thinly sliced red onion, rinsed

Mix the mascarpone, egg yolks, cheese and thyme in a small bowl. Season with pepper. (Refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days; use at room temperature.)

Heat oven to 400 degrees on convection or 425 degrees on conventional setting. Cut eggplant into 3/4-inch thick rounds. Cut rounds into 3/4-inch pieces. Place eggplant on an oiled baking sheet. Toss with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and paprika. Roast, stirring once or twice, until richly golden, about 15 minutes. (Refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days.)

Meanwhile, heat a film of canola oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Have a splatter guard handy. Add shishito peppers to pan. Cook, turning often, until blistered and blacked in spots, 4 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and scoop out onto a plate. Add pancetta to pan; cook and stir until golden, about 2 minutes (slightly longer if using bacon). Remove from heat.

Italian pancetta bacon cubes being browned in a pan. Getty Images

Heat a large pot of well-salted water to boil over high heat. Add penne. Cook, stirring often, until al dente (a tiny bit firm when you bite into a piece), 10 to 12 minutes. Scoop out and reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta; return it to the pot.

Stir the mascarpone mixture into the pasta; mix well. Stir in the eggplant and shishito peppers. Add enough cooking liquid to loosen things up a bit if necessary. Sprinkle with pancetta, toss and serve topped with herbs and red onion. Makes 4 servings.

— Tribune News Service

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