I got pregnant with my first child soon after my husband and I got married. We had only moved in together about two weeks before the wedding! We didn’t really have a moment to get into domestic habits before there were three of us. I was working crazy hours as the chef of Barley + Oats, a meal delivery service for pregnant and nursing women. When I’d finally come home after cooking all day, sometimes I wouldn’t have the energy to plan a thoughtful meal for either of us. But I did feel like eating a thoughtful meal! I was a newlywed, and a pregnant one at that!
I’d always sat down to dinner. It was something we did as a family growing up. I made dinner for my roommates in my first apartments after college. I made dinner for my friends in graduate school as we studied late most nights, preparing for exams and putting off our reading. Even when I was a line-cook in busy restaurants in the city, I’d make dinner for someone, even if it was just myself, on my night off. It seemed essential that even though tired and pregnant as I was I’d at least try to make dinner for myself and my husband.
I can remember coming home one Sunday night, about eight months pregnant, just about on the verge of tears with third trimester exhaustion having been cooking on my feet all day and just knowing I hadn’t gone grocery shopping, and further knowing that my husband, who travels so much for work, certainly hadn’t gone either. I nearly cried (ok maybe I cried) when I realized I didn’t know what I was going to eat for dinner (pregnancy!) Obviously I could have ordered something but the truth was, I just wanted my own food, and everything delivery just seemed so heavy and salty I could feel my feet swelling just thinking about it. (I didn’t eat movie popcorn throughout my pregnancies either).
Once I’d arrived home, my new husband bewildered as to my blithering about there being “no food”, I desperately peeked in my pantries. And I sighed with relief. There, on a mostly barren shelf, sat a can of tomatoes, a box of spaghetti, and a few inches of decent olive oil. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened the fridge like I was pulling the handle of slot machine with my last quarter, and I found a somewhat ancient and wizened head of garlic with a few nubby cloves clinging to it, and shriveled but un-moldy half onion. I was back in business. In less time than it would have taken to pull up seamless and order just about anything, I’d have dinner for two on the table.
It may seem cliche, but a quick marinara sauce and some perfectly cooked spaghetti is just never wrong in my book. It’s my go-to, ready in no time, crowd pleasing, put it on autopilot kinda meal. It is so satisfying and my ultimate comfort food.
My mother made it at least once a week growing up. We’re Italian-American, and I swear me and my sister would eat just about anything covered in my mom’s marinara. It was the first thing I learned how to cook, not because my mom ever taught me, but because I spent endless hours standing next to her as she quickly put it together after just about any kind of day you can imagine. My sister, now pregnant with her first, never enjoyed cooking as much as I did, but when she cooked for herself the first time she called me up at college and said, “Hey, how do you make mom’s marinara?” I laughed and recited the “recipe” by heart while she dutifully took notes.
I made it for myself and my husband that night, and many many nights since. Sometimes I dress it up with fresh herbs or a splash of wine. Sometimes I serve it with salad on the side. Sometimes not. Occasionally my husband throws some hot sauce on top while I cringe and twirl my spaghetti with “that look” on my face.
Now I make it for my kids at least once a week. They would eat it every night if I let them (I have to mix it up if just to get in some greens!) I put the leftovers in my son’s lunch box, and it’s just about the only time the teachers tell me, “He ate all his lunch today!” We have it with long spaghetti, short penne, curly fusilli, elbow macaroni, whatever funny shape I found at Trader Joe’s. Sometimes I serve the sauce on the side as a “dip,” because toddlers can be weird.
Everyone should have a few quick, cheap, easy meals that can be pretty much prepared straight from the pantry without thinking too hard about it. Bonus points if it’s even moderately nutritious, and double points if it’s pasta because what pregnant person ever refused a bowl of spaghetti?! This one is my back-pocket meal, and I’d be delighted if it becomes yours too.
Recipe for Spaghetti Marinara
Serves 4-6 adults
1 28-oz can tomatoes (best quality, diced, crushed, or strained)
1 medium yellow onion, very thinly sliced
2-3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
Fresh parsley and basil, optional
1 lb dried spaghetti (semolina or gluten-free)
Salt to taste
2 1/2 cups Marinara Sauce (see above)
Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese (optional)
First make the sauce. Heat a medium pot or large sauté pan over medium high heat and add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Add onions and garlic and stir to coat. Let those cook, stirring occasionally just until they are fragrant and the onions begin to turn translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add tomatoes, and stir to combine. Turn heat to high to bring sauce up to a boil, then lower down to a simmer. Cook, simmering, for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt and add as necessary.
Meanwhile, cook spaghetti. Bring a large pot of water up to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, generously salt the water and add spaghetti all at once, stirring to submerge the pasta as quickly as possible without breaking. Follow directions on the package or cook for about 10-12 minutes. Taste pasta after 10 minutes in any case, and if done to your liking, drain and return to the pot while still hot.
Add a generous amount of sauce to the pasta stirring to coat. Drizzle with olive oil if you like. Add fresh herbs and/or grated cheese before serving.
*For picky kids, toss a little plain pasta with olive oil to keep it from sticking together, and serve sauce on the side!
Contributed by Alfia Muzio, founder of Vestal, the company that is dedicated to helping families foster confidence (and deliciousness) in the kitchen. Alfia has previously written for Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, worked as a caterer, a private chef, and was most recently Executive Chef at Barley and Oats, a delivery service for new and nursing moms. She lives, cooks, and eats with her husband and two gorgeous children in New York City.