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Meals in under 20 minutes

By February 25, 20202 Comments

Good intentions fly out the window when you’re pressed for time. There are days when I plan nutritious meals for myself and The Always Famished Teenager, but get sucked into a work vortex and end up feeding him cold cereal or a “salad” made of what I find in our fridge. 

Yet, to prepare a complete, substantial and tasty meal––that’s also different and enticing every day––20 minutes are more than enough. 

couscous salad in 20 minutes

It can take less than 20 minutes, in fact, to bring an original and tasty dish to the table. Here are 8 recipes for when we have limited time in the kitchen.


Couscous originates as a Maghrebi dish of small steamed crumbs of crushed durum wheat semolina traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned on top. Couscous is a staple food throughout the North African cuisines of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Libya. In Sicily, precisely in the Trapani area (a territory that in the last two centuries has had frequent historical and social ties with Tunisia and Libya) and in areas such as Favignana, and San Vito Lo Capo, couscous is steamed in a special enameled clay pot, but the condiment, unlike the Maghrebi, is a fish stew. For a quick midday salad, in a large bowl add 1 cup of couscous and pour over 300 ml of boiling water, then cover with a plate and leave to absorb for 5 minutes. In the meantime assemble the dressing: mix 1 Tbsp. of pesto with a squeeze of lemon juice, season with salt and pepper then gradually mix in extra virgin olive oil. Pour over the couscous and mix with a fork. Add chopped tomatoes and cubed mozzarella into the couscous, then lightly stir in a bunch of fresh spinach leaves to complete the serving. Ask us about our cooking classes in Eastern Sicily.

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino

Aio e oio, like we say in the Eternal City, is a classic Roman pasta dish. It’s made, like the name implies, with very few basic ingredients: garlic, olive oil, chili flakes. The fourth silent partner in this dish is the essential starchy pasta cooking water. Short ingredient list and quick cooking time, but don’t think this means making aio e oio is easy. Follow the steps carefully. Cook the spaghetti in salted boiling water. This will take about 9 to 12 minutes, so budget your time at the stove accordingly. Sauté minced garlic and chili flakes in ¼ cup olive oil until the garlic is golden, roughly 2-3 minutes. Drain the pasta quite al dente––that is, nearly but not quite done and still a bit chalky in the middle––approximately 2-3 minutes before the box says. Note: reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Let the oil cool for a couple of minutes, then add 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water, and reduce over high heat by about half. This will take a few seconds. Add the drained pasta, and stir quickly as it continues to cook. Add the rest of the reserved pasta water a little at a time as necessary to finish cooking the pasta. This will develop a thick, creamy sauce. Adjust seasoning with salt, and bring to the table. Please do not serve dusted with grated cheese. Toasted breadcrumbs, yes.

Nociata pasta in 20 minutes


Another quick and original pasta dish that can be made in under 20 minutes! This is a recipe typical of central Italy, usually enjoyed during the holidays. In the Viterbo area of Lazio it’s called maccheroni con le noci. To make this unusual sweet & savory pasta chop 1/2 cup of walnuts, add the zest of one lemon and season with 2 Tbsp. sugar, a pinch of salt and a Tsp. of cinnamon. Boil penne, conchiglie, pipette or rigatoni in plenty of salted water, drain and dress with the unusual nociata condiment. You won’t be disappointed!

Tuna, cannellini and onion salad

Italians always have cans of oil-packed tuna and beans in the pantry. Quick Italian-style tuna salad omits the mayo and adds to the tinned tuna (squeezing away excess oil) rinsed canned cannellini beans, slivered red onions from Tropea and herbs like oregano or basil (when in season). The seasoning is just as simple: generous glugs of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

vellutata in 20 minutes

Squash vellutata

Soup saves the day! For this creamy comfort food recipe you can use an InstantPot, a pressure cooker or even just a microwave. Chop 250 grams of butternut, violina or mantovana squash pulp into chunks, place on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and add a sprig of rosemary. Bake in the hot oven (180 C/350 F) until caramelized. Reduce the squash pulp to a cream in the blender, using vegetable broth or water to dilute. Brown croutons in a pan with a drizzle of olive oil and salt. Serve the soup garnished with toasted croutons and complete with toasted pumpkin seeds. If you like you can add a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream.

Pasta Burro e Alici

I used to hate anchovies. I did not like them on pizza and I thought they ruined mozzarella in carrozza. Then, the epiphany: a perfect slice of bread smeared with butter and topped with an oil-preserved anchovy, and my embargo was instantly canceled. Pasta burro e alici works on the same principle of that culinary match made in heaven, all in under 20 minutes! Cook your pasta in salted boiling water. In the meantime add softened butter and 3-4 oil packed anchovies in a large saucepan, heating over a low flame. Using a wooden spoon dissolve the anchovies into the slowly melting butter. Drain the pasta straight into the saucepan, stirring quickly to coat well. Serve and smile.

Scaloppine al Marsala

Marsala is a delicious sweet wine notoriously made in the city of Marsala in Sicily. The versatility of the wine makes it a perfect ingredient for sweet and savory dishes. Besides being the star of zabajone, my favorite recipe using marsala is scaloppine.

Dredge your pork or veal cutlets in flour. Heat a small knob of butter and a zip of olive oil in a large pan, when the butter starts to bubble add the cutlets. Brown quickly on both sides (2 minutes, max) then splash in the marsala wine and let it evaporate as you deglaze the pan, stirring in at the browned bits at the bottom. This will result in a delicious creamy sauce. Cook for an additional 4-6 minutes and serve immediately, adjusting seasoning to taste.

What are your go-to 20 minute recipes?


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