Go-To Dinners: Freestyle Pasta Primavera.

‘Ever have those nights where you are so hungry that you cannot even begin to think of what to cook for dinner? Or nights when you are so tired that the thought of doing anything other than passing out on the couch seems monumental?

Or how about a combination of starving, too tired to think and too exhausted to move? Oh, and don’t forget to throw in a hefty pinch of guilt because the kids have eaten cereal for dinner for the past two nights, and carry-out pizza the night before that. All those variables equate to a night where really delicious, non-crappy food is a requirement. And make it snappy, too!

I feel pretty confident in assuming that I am not the only one who has been there before.  It happens to me more often than I care to publicly admit.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not much fun to be around when I’m tired, cranky, and hungry all at the same time. I can be downright beastial–I need food, and I need it fast!

When those moments strike, I go to the cupboard and look at my list of Go-To Dinners–good stuff that I know I can make with pantry staples and other things that usually lurk forgotten in my ‘fridge until it’s almost too late. Yep, I typed up a list so that in the midst of a Savage Beast moment, I can just see what to make for dinner. No thinking required.

Case in Point: Freestyle Pasta Primavera

This is one of those meals. I’ve been making this Freestyle Pasta Primavera in some incarnation or another for as long as I can remember.  We call it freestyle because it comes together quickly with things I have on hand at the moment, so it’s always a little bit different.  It’s a speedy way to get a real meal on the table that I can feel pretty good about serving, while soothing the Savage Beast at the same time.

All you need is a lot of fresh, non-watery vegetables such as broccoli, sweet peppers, carrots, and celery; along with lemon, olive oil, sharp Italian cheese, some pasta, kosher salt, and freshly cracked black pepper.

Bring a large stock pot full of water to a rolling boil, and then toss in a hefty handful of kosher salt. Don’t freak out about all the salt! The secret to great pasta is cooking it in what tastes like seawater.

Add the pasta to the salted water, stirring until it is completely submerged. Cook the pasta according to package directions until almost al dente. You don’t want to over cook the pasta now, because it’s going to finish cooking while simmering in the sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, chop the vegetables into bite sized pieces, and mince the garlic. My baby carrots were on the scrawny side, so I just left them whole.

Then go ahead and juice the lemon. If you are like me & are a little extra-lazy when you’re hungry, you won’t want to fool with a mesh strainer.  Just be sure to fish the seeds out of the juice when you are done squeezing the lemon.

But don’t let being a little extra-lazy keep you from freshly grating the cheese. I like to use sharp Italian cheeses like Asiago, Fontina, or Parmigiana Reggiano. By the time you are done grating the cheese, the pasta should be ready.

*Before* draining the pasta, scoop a couple of cups of the cooking liquid out of the pot to use in the sauce. The cooking liquid serves as a base for the very light sauce, so don’t drain the pasta without saving it.

Full-Disclosure Alert: I have drained the pasta without saving the cooking liquid more times that I care to discuss, which results in a very flat-tasting pasta. I’d be lying if I told you that there was no swearing involved when that happens. Don’t be like me–save the pasta water!

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the garlic and vegetables until they are barely crisp-tender–about 5 to 7 minutes. Season veggies with a hefty pinch of kosher salt and a few cranks of the pepper mill.

Pour the reserved pasta cooking liquid into the skillet. Give the whole thing a good stir to combine.  Toss in another pinch of salt & pepper, if you’re feeling dangerous. Bring the sauce mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for two minutes.

Stir in the lemon juice. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings. Remember that the pasta will have a lot of flavor after being cooked in salted water, so be careful not to over-season the sauce. The sauce should be simple, fresh and light.

While the skillet is still over low heat, add the hot, cooked pasta to the mix. I love wielding a big wad of pasta across the kitchen with a pair of tongs–makes me feel like a real cook.

Grab tong-fulls of pasta and vegetables, turning to coat and distribute the vegetables. Continue to simmer for another minute until everything is heated through, and the pasta has a chance to absorb a little of the sauce.

Turn off the heat, and sprinkle most of the shredded cheese on top. Turn the pasta with the tongs until the cheese is incorporated and mostly melted.

If you’re once Extra-Lazy Self has now been motivated to a Fancy-Pants State of Mind, then rub the interior of the serving bowls with a peeled garlic clove for a little extra pizzazz.

Serve pasta in those sassy bowls with extra grated cheese on top.

Next time the Savage Beast of Exhaustion/Hunger/Mental Obscurity pays you a visit, feed her some Freestyle Pasta and tell her to chill out.

Freestyle Pasta Primavera


Serves 6-8

14 oz. linguine (or other favorite pasta)

Kosher salt for pasta water (about 1 Tbs. or more, to taste)

1 Tbs. olive oil (or more, to taste)

1 ½ C. fresh broccoli florets

1 C. baby carrots, halved lengthwise

½ C. sweet bell peppers, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled & minced

2 C. freshly grated sharp Italian cheese (such as Asiago, Fontina, or Parmesan,) divided

Kosher salt & freshly cracked pepper (to taste)

2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice (or more, to taste)

2 C. of *Reserved* pasta water (from cooking pasta)

  1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large stock pot. Toss a tablespoon (or more) of kosher salt into water.  Add linguine to the water, and cook according to package instructions until al dente. (Usually about 6-8 minutes.)
  2. **Take 2 cups of the pasta water out before draining the pasta, and set it aside. Drain the pasta.
  3. While pasta is cooking, chop the vegetables and garlic, and then grate the cheese.
  4. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Sauté the vegetables until they are crisp-tender, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper. (I usually start with 1 tsp. salt + ¼ tsp. pepper.)
  5. Pour the pasta water into the skillet; stir. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes.
  6. Stir the lemon juice to the veggies and sauce. Taste sauce and adjust the seasonings. Remember—the pasta was cooked in salted water, so don’t over-salt the sauce.
  7. With the skillet still over low heat, add the hot, cooked pasta; turning to coat and distribute vegetables. Simmer for another minute so that everything is heated through and pasta absorbs a little of the sauce.
  8. Turn off the heat, and then sprinkle 1 ½ cups of the cheese over the pasta; turning to distribute and melt the cheese.
  9. If you are feeling extra fancy-pants, then rub the interior of the serving bowls with a peeled garlic clove.
  10. Serve pasta in bowls with more cheese sprinkled over top.

Get More Updates!

Sign up to get exclusive updates & tips!

Genesis Theme Framework for WordPress


  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Kirsten. I found myself thinking, “Wow! That DOES sound like a great go-to meal in a hurry.” I love anything with pasta, cheese, lemon & garlic. I’m putting it on my emergency meal list. With grilled cheese and tomato soup.

  2. says

    I’m with Jeanne. Especially since when we’re in a hurry or Marcus is being a hunger terrorist, we end up eating…tacos. Not really expensive, but let’s be serious. Everyone has the aforementioned ingredients or some variation thereof in their fridge/pantry/crisper.

      • says

        haha This exact scenario is in motion at our house as I type this. We looked at the pasta for about 10 minutes until we decided tacos were in our future.
        I love making freestyle pasta. It’s one of my specialties, but the extra veggies and lemon must give this one an extra kick!
        My favorite pantry add-ins have included:
        frozen peas
        sundried tomatoes
        kalamata olives
        Next time we have a host of leftover farmers market veggies, I know what I’m having!

        • says

          Oh, yes! Bacon, peas, and sundried tomatoes are awesome additions to freestyle pasta. I can’t even tell you how many CSA veggies that I didn’t know what to do with ended up in pasta, thus proving that everything is tasty in pasta.

  3. Kelly says

    I tried this tonight and the cheese didn’t melt smoothly, it was rather gloppy. I used fresh Parmesan. Any suggestions

    • says

      I’m sorry to hear that, Kelly! I’ve never had the cheese glop up. You might try grating the cheese more finely, and do an over all sprinkle over the pasta so that it doesn’t clump together? Keep in mind that this is a very lightly dressed pasta, so Parmesan won’t melt smoothly into the sauce, as with an Alfredo or other cream sauce. Think of the Parmesan as a flavor component, another something to “bite,” like the vegetables. :)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *