A LOT. And chances were, if we weren't eating out, we were ordering in.
I viewed home cooking as a necessary evil in between restaurant visits or deliveries, and consequently my home-cooked meals were pretty uninspired...spaghetti and marinara, a baked potato, salad and pre-packaged marinated chicken breast, or Rice-a-Roni and a chunk of grilled meat. (Now, there were times I actually cooked delicious meals from scratch, but those times were few and far between.)
When life changed (ie: kids entered the picture), and home cooking became a plain old necessity instead of a necessary evil, it was a tough period of adjustment. All those years we spent navigating LA's dynamic restaurant scene had made me into kind of a food snob. I was no longer satisfied by a chunk of grilled chicken and some microwaved peas. If I was going to have to give up my yellowtail-jalapeno sushi rolls and grilled calamari with lemon zest and butter, I would learn to make food at home that satisfied those same cravings. I wanted my meals to have pizzazz.
One way I've been able to add a little gourmet restaurant flair into my life is by making over some of the basic "out of the pantry" meals I've been eating my entire life. One dish that recently received a makeover was our standby spaghetti and marinara.
For us, "pasta night" used to mean nuking Ragu or Classico sauce and pouring it over some cappellini or penne. It was tasty enough, but vaguely depressing. I really, really wanted to be able to make a fresh homemade sauce, but the idea of it terrified me. I thought making your own pasta sauce was a task only to be undertaken by Italians with a secret family recipe that had been handed down four generations.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I caught a segment on a Food Network show featuring Wolfgang Puck's signature pasta sauce. The ingredients weren't scary, and the whole process took about 10 minutes. I didn't get a chance to take down his recipe exactly, but I remembered the basic ideas behind it, so one day I gave it a shot. We haven't gone back to Ragu or Classico since.
I've grouped the ingredients into two categories: "definite" and "maybe." The "definite" ingredients are ones you should definitely use, and the "maybe" ingredients are optional...depending on your taste.
Fresh tomatoes, diced
Good extra virgin olive oil
Some minced garlic
Some decent dry white wine
Grated parmesan cheese
Fresh chopped basil
Basically you chop up a few tomatoes and cook them in EVOO on medium-low heat until they start to wilt. Add some garlic and cook a little more. Add a little white wine and some salt. Then taste it and add a little more of whatever you think it needs more of. Also add any of the "maybe ingredients" that appeal to you...or all of them. Then when it tastes pretty good, pour it over the cooked pasta of your choice and mix in a few handfuls of parmesan cheese.
This sauce is a little more delicate than your typical jarred sauce, but it's still really flavorful...especially if you're liberal with the salt and parmesan cheese. I didn't include any measurements because I just kind of add things in small amounts until it tastes right. Plus, standing over the sauce, adding a splash of this and a dash of that, makes me feel a little more like a fourth generation Italian with a secret family recipe.