Secret Sauce

It started out with my annual year-end pantry clean-out project. Checking the dates on the spices and mixes and tossing out those that are past their best-if-used-by dates. Then I took stock of and organized the canned vegetables, beans and fruit. Next up were several boxes of dried pasta like rotini and linguini that were opened but not enough was left for a meal on their own. It sparked an idea the kids especially enjoyed, a pasta bar. I offered a Caesar salad and fresh fruit to round out the meal.

I made the red sauce first and set it aside. Then, I popped the chicken in the oven and set two saucepans of salted water to boil. While they were coming to a boil, I browned the ground beef in one skillet and the spicy Italian sausage in another. Jeff made the zucchini noodles and tossed them in a skillet with a bit of olive oil until they were softened, about 5 minutes. Once the pasta was cooked and drained, we were ready to lay out the spread. The Alfredo sauce came together and the cheddar cheese sauce warmed while we were setting up the pasta bar.

The kids really enjoyed selecting their favorite ingredients. Orchestrating the meal took a few minutes to plan and while it was a bit challenging to keep things warm as they were finished, it was worth it.

The Pasta

Choose two or three types of pasta that work well with sauces. Ziti and rotini are best with red sauces while linguini holds with white sauces well. We are excited about making noodles with zucchini so that was on our bar. For another lighter option, angel hair pasta works well with pesto. 

The Sauce

For the sauce selections, a red, white and cheese variety are popular while pesto can be offered as a lighter option. You can make your own or easily purchase these. I made the classic red pasta sauce and Alfredo sauce but purchased the cheddar cheese sauce. 

The Protein

Lean ground beef that is cooked and crumbled is a traditional addition that kids love. The adults enjoyed spicy Italian sausage that I cut into coins and browned in the skillet until cooked through. I also offered shredded chicken breast tenderloins that I sprinkled with seasoning and baked in a 425 degree F. oven for 20 minutes, cooled slightly and then shredded. Steamed broccoli would be a great addition as well as fresh basil.

Classic Red Pasta Sauce


2 Tbsp. olive oil

3 c. finely chopped yellow onion

1 tsp. kosher salt

2 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 tsp. red pepper flakes

2 (28-oz.) cans whole peeled tomatoes in juice


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1. Puree tomatoes and juice in blender. Set aside.

2. In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil. When oil is hot, add the onion and salt and cook, continuing to stir, until translucent, about 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and red pepper flakes and cook another 30 seconds while stirring.

3. Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce will be slightly thickened.

Simple Alfredo Sauce


1 stick unsalted butter

1 c. heavy whipping cream

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 c. warm water (pasta water if available)


1. In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Once melted, use a whisk to stir in whipping cream. Then add salt and pepper and combine.

2. Sprinkle in the grated Parmesan cheese and stir constantly until melted. Slowly add warm water and stir until you reach desired consistency. You may not need all of the water.

Apron Strings Note: Purchase the Parmesan cheese from the deli section and grate your own or select pre-grated cheese. The key is a high-quality cheese.