The Trader Joe’s obsession looms large in the hearts and minds of those of us on campus lucky enough to have a kitchen. The allure of their frozen food options that reduce dinner to a 20-minute process is hard to resist. With that being said, there’s a middle ground between a dinner that comes directly out of a box, and a dinner that requires ten different ingredients and an hour of your life. 

The theme of these recommendations is dinner that can be made with minimal amounts of prep work and thinking. You use so much of your brain power on getting through your classes and assignments, do you really want to also have to use it on pasta? This is cooking based on throwing nonsense in a pan and simply vibing your way to dinner. These are “recipes” (using that term very loosely here) for the imperfect chef, who desires something they can put together without having to strictly follow instructions, and really wants half the work to have already been done for them. 

Spinach and Artichoke Pasta:

Trader Joe’s sells spinach and artichoke dip that comes in the form of a frozen puck. This may sound unappetizing, but hear me out. Place this bizarre looking food item in a baking dish, set your oven to 350 degrees, and allow it to bake until the top begins to just barely brown. While this is baking, cook your pasta shape of choice. My choice will always be farfalle. Pasta shaped like bow ties may be regarded as intended for children, I simply do not care and will not be accepting criticism. Reserve some of your pasta water, and pour over the baked spinach and artichoke dip until it thins out to a proper pasta sauce level of thickness. Throw in your pasta, and you’re done! 

If you are feeling extra adventurous, and willing to wait ten more minutes for your dinner, put your completed pasta back in the baking dish, top with the cheese of your choosing and throw that thing back in the oven until it starts to brown on the top. 

Or if you’re the kind of person who likes to add a few extra veggies into your day whenever possible (which I try to be but only sometimes act on), supplement what’s already in the dip with the addition of some fresh (or frozen) spinach or a jar of marinated artichokes. Pro tip: add your spinach product of choice to the pot for the last two to three minutes that your pasta is cooking, this will get it to the perfect point of cooking enough to properly mix in but not yet soggy and weird. 

Creamy Chicken Sausage Pasta:

I have also been a loyalist to Trader Joe’s frozen peppers and onions mix. It has made an appearance in nearly every quesadilla or burrito bowl I have made since discovering this lovely creation. However, it is also fantastic in pasta. Add a bag of this stuff to a pan with just a splash of water to help it defrost faster. After about five minutes, toss your favorite variety of chicken sausage into that mix along with a small bit of oil to help it crisp up. Trader Joe’s sells a variety of chicken sausage flavor options, follow your heart. Or throw in a regular italian sausage, I’m not the boss of you. 

Once the sausage and peppers mix gets a little bit crispy, add your pasta shape of choice and a splash of the pasta water along with it. Give this a bit of milk or cream and allow to cook just long enough that the scratches in your pasta water create a thicker sauce. Season this like crazy. I recommend a Cajun seasoning blend. If that’s not a thing you regularly buy, a bunch of paprika, chili powder, cumin or any combination thereof will do just fine. 

Brown Butter Mushroom Pasta:

If I’m being honest, this one is really just a grown-up feeling way to satisfy the urge to eat buttered noodles. Start yourself off with however much butter your heart desires. Butter is not measured by the soul, not the tablespoon. Keep your pan on medium to low heat and stir constantly. The butter will separate into a clearer top layer that looks like oil and a bottom layer of white specs. These are your milk solids. They are your little friends that make this dish delicious. Let the butter continue to cook until those guys start to get golden brown. 

Trader Joe’s sells a pre-cooked and pre-seasoned frozen mushroom mix, toss that in there. Allow the mushrooms to reanimate from their frozen state, then add your pasta shape of choice and a bit of pasta water. If you take nothing else away from these recipes, please remember to appreciate the magic of pasta water. Add Italian seasoning, rosemary, chives, or some other herb  along those lines that you vibe with. Never forget the garlic. And top with a hefty amount of parmesan. 

If you’re willing to buy an additional ingredient the addition of spinach or peas is very yummy. If you want more of a creamy sauce you can add a bit more pasta water and some milk or cream. This can be made with gnocchi instead of pasta and it is a wonderful experience. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, take your uncooked pasta, place it on a baking sheet and toast it until it gets golden brown, then proceed to boil like you normally would. This gives the pasta a nuttier flavor that goes really well with the brown butter. There are many modification options, I don’t make the rules. 

Cooking doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to mean strictly following a recipe. It doesn’t have to mean doing all the prep work yourself. Let Trader Joe’s do the first half of your dinner preparations, and easily throw together a fast and delicious meal.

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