There are certain things I find are very useful to keep in the freezer, ready to go for last-minute meals. Things like homemade chicken broth, vegetarian chili, spaghetti sauce or cooked and shredded smoked pork.
After all, it takes no longer to poke around the freezer and come up with dinner than it does to dig around for a take-out menu, and you won't have to worry about tipping a delivery guy either. :)
Another useful basic is a simple tomato sauce, made with really good canned tomatoes, slow-cooked onion and a wee bit of garlic (okay, a lot of garlic). There's not much to it, but it can be very delicious so long as you use good-quality ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes (yes, they cost double, but they're worth it... trust me) and a fruity, flavourful olive oil.
It's the starting point for any number of quickie pasta dishes, like spaghetti and meatballs or a spinach-and-sausage pasta toss, or can be turned into a beautiful slow-cooked meat ragu by adding some well-browned short ribs and simmering for two to three hours until the meat is falling off the bone. It's even pretty good poured on top of store-bought gnocchi or frozen tortellini, two of my other favourite last-minute dinner supplies, with no frills beyond a sprinkling of shredded parmesan and perhaps a chiffonade of fresh basil.
Sounds a whole lot better than a large pepperoni pizza with double cheese, if you ask me...
Simple Tomato Sauce
3 tbsp good-quality olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
¼ cup tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can good-quality tomatoes (like San Marzano)
1 cup red or white wine (or Vermouth, if you prefer)
Handful fresh basil leaves, minced
Salt and pepper
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and tomato paste and saute, stirring frequently, until golden and very soft, about 10 minutes.
Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, crushing them into smallish chunks with the back of a wooden spoon, and wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, on a low heat for 30 minutes to mellow the flavours. Stir in fresh basil, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
If you're a fan of chunky sauce, you're done! Freeze in 1-cup portions for later use, or spoon onto cooked pasta for a simple dinner. (if you prefer a smoother sauce, puree it using a food processor, blender or food mill before using)
Quick Sausage-and-Spinach Pasta
250g orecchiette pasta (half a box of DeCecco)
1 tbsp good-quality olive oil
1 Italian sausage (hot or sweet, it's up to you)
1 cup Simple Tomato Sauce
2 cups fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
Cook pasta as per package directions.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Cut sausage into ½" thick slices; add to hot oil and saute until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce; bring to a boil, then reduce to low and simmer until sausage is cooked through, about 5 minutes.
Add sauce to cooked, drained pasta. Stir in baby spinach and toss to combine (don't worry if this seems like a lot of spinach - the heat from the pasta will wilt it down to a manageable amount).
Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and serve, piping hot, with some crusty bread to mop up the sauce.