Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta only takes a microwave and a microwave-safe pasta cooker. The (mostly) no-cook sauce is made right in the pasta cooker. This dish could also be called “lab-rat pasta” or “office-cubicle pasta” for its simplicity—and because it works well for labs, offices, and any other situation where cooking space is at a premium.
Creating Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta: the bittersweet.
People, I have to level with you: today’s post is bittersweet. Our daughter moves into her college dorm room this week. While I am crazy-excited for the fantastic, new world she’ll experience in college, I’m also incredibly sad because I know that the hubster and I will miss her terribly.
I have been thinking of this move for months—nice things that Phil and I could do to make the transition easier, to make her dorm room more homey, to stay in touch and let her know we’re thinking of her. Every time I started talking with the hubster about it, I’d get choked up. EVERY TIME! In fact, I tried reading this post to Phil to get his input and only made it 30 seconds in before I cried, “I can’t do this. I’ll SEND it to you!”
This emotion is huge and new for me, folks: we’re talking about a woman who—literally overnight…er, in the space of 2 tiny, enormous words—went from having zero kids to THREE. (Confused? I tell the story here). Anyway, I never imagined that being a stepmom would feel like this. But here I am! [choke, sniff]
Our daughter’s dorm is equipped with a mini-fridge and a microwave, so in the weeks running up to the big move, I made it my mission to figure out a simple, go-to meal that conformed to these rules: 1) all ingredients had to be either stored on a shelf or take up as little space as possible in the mini-fridge and 2) the meal had to be completely microwaveable.
Thus, Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta. It’s so incredibly easy that you’ll be making it at the office.
Creating Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta: the nostalgic.
This post is also very nostalgic for me, because I remember moving into MY dorm room, which DIDN’T have a mini fridge or microwave (but I brought my own). Later, I remember being a graduate student with very little time to devote to anything but lab work, for whom a meal’s value was judged by its expedience rather than its nutritive value. (Hello, Taco Bell!) In fact, the bowl of pasta in the photo above was set atop some of my actual, super-geeky notes from grad school and my postdoc (don’t worry: that experiment—for anyone who can figure out what it was—didn’t work. I put the “re” in research. HA!).
OK, labbies, I know: you don’t eat IN the LAB. You eat in the communal lunch room, of course, next to 1) the microwave that perpetually smells of rotten fish or burnt popcorn and 2) the refrigerator packed with little plastic food containers (usually with a Sharpie-inscribed label like “Michelle’s! Hands OFF!”, habitually ignored by starving undergrads).
But I digress.
Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta is equally amenable to an office setting, which also likely has a stinky communal microwave and lunch-container-packed refrigerator. Since the hubster and I both work from home, I frequently make this pasta for lunch. It’s just so easy and yummy!
The basics of Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta
For anyone who might sniff in disdain at the idea of cooking pasta in the microwave, I got the initial idea from an Italian postdoc who worked in a neighboring lab while I was in grad school. He was famous in our department for the authentic Italian dishes he brought for get-togethers. If he can do it, so can I. So there.
This simplest, most dorm-room-friendly version of Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta involves decent-quality extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and plenty of black pepper. This version requires no refrigeration, and can be done in about 7 minutes (at least for al dente). Since this IS a very simple pasta, the flavors are very simple as well. You want a good-quality, fruity olive oil and PLENTY of black pepper.
If you did have a mini-fridge, and that mini-fridge happened to have some Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese in it, adding a few tablespoons to a half cup would be AWESOME: then this pasta becomes a humble version of the Italian classic, Cacio e Pepe. If said mini-fridge ALSO happened to contain some fresh ingredients like, say, cherry tomatoes (as in the picture up top) or arugula—then this pasta would go from simple-but-good to fairly sophisticated and really, really good. Arugula is a special favorite of mine because it brings its own earthy, peppery flavor that pairs very well with the black pepper.
The sauce for this dish is beyond simple, and comes about, in part, from the pasta cooking liquid. For each serving of pasta, I use only a cup of cooking liquid and a pinch of salt. This, in turn, gets mostly sucked up by the pasta during the 7-8 minute nuke. After that time, there should be very little water left: I keep no more than about a tablespoon and drain the rest. Then I add in some EVOO and freshly ground black pepper—and, preferably, Parmesan or Romano cheese—and give the pasta a quick toss right in the cooking container, along with any fresh ingredients I might want to add in. The bit of remaining pasta cooking liquid contains starch, which helps binds the sauce together.
This pasta has a very mild flavor, which is traditional: if it’s too bland for your taste, add in 1/2 tsp. of dried Italian herbs. In fact, since this IS dorm-room pasta, you could scratch the sauce altogether and add your favorite jarred tomato sauce. I won’t tell anyone.
Now, a caveat: for this particular dish, I only use flat pastas like spaghetti, angel hair, or linguine. Tube pastas will require more water because the pasta will not be completely submerged in the small amount we use. I particularly like Dreamfield’s low-glycemic index spaghetti, but you could use gluten-free pasta, whole wheat pasta, or any other “healthier” pasta you can find: just realize that you’ll have to experiment with the cooking times, as they will vary between pasta types.
Factors that make Healthy Dorm-Room Pasta “healthy”
- This is an easy vegetarian meal (to make it truly vegetarian, make sure that you use a vegetarian-friendly Parmesan or Romano cheese—or use a substitute).
- It’s far lower in calories than a Taco Bell run, that’s for sure!
- The sauce is made with extra-virgin olive oil: EVOO contains antioxidants and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which have preventive effects against oxidative damage and cardiovascular disease, respectively.
- Pasta already has a low glycemic index when compared to high-GI foods like, say, a bagel: this means that it won’t cause the spikes in blood sugar—followed by energy crashes—that are typical of high-GI foods. Using an even lower-glycemic index pasta, especially one that’s enriched with fiber, protein, or both, is an even healthier choice. Of course, if you have celiac disease or a sensitivity to glutens, you’ll want to opt for gluten-free pasta.
- Finally, if you’ve got that mini-fridge, adding in some fresh greens or other vegetables provides even more antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients.
Warning: USE CAUTION while you’re making Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta!
Since you’re making pasta in the microwave, you’re dealing with boiling liquids and steam. Use extreme care when you handle the pasta cooker! Don’t boil the pasta with the lid on, as this will cause the liquid to boil over. Although this shouldn’t be a problem, just in case: if boil-overs do occur, turn off the microwave and open the door—but don’t grab the container! Let the liquid settle down for about 30 seconds, and then resume cooking. When the cook time is complete, I always let the pasta sit in the microwave with the door open for about 30 seconds before I reach for it.
Final thoughts on making Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta
These microwave pasta cooker things? Pure genius. I have to admit that I’ve used a DIY microwave pasta cooker for many years, which consisted of a deep, narrow, microwave-safe, BPA-free plastic storage container. I usually just pulled my pasta out with a fork and dumped the water in the sink. But an actual microwave pasta cooker has a lid that is specially designed not only to safely drain pasta, but also to measure out pasta servings. That’s brilliant, in my book, even though you won’t need the pasta-draining feature for this recipe.
One more thing: not all microwaves are created equally, so you will likely have to experiment a bit with yours. About 7 minutes did it for me and yielded the slightly-past al dente texture that I prefer—but the Fasta Pasta cooking chart specifies 10-11 minutes. To be safe, check at 7 minutes and at every minute thereafter until the pasta is the perfect texture for you.
I’ve written the recipe below for one serving with dorm rooms and office cubicles in mind. You can adjust that as needed—up to the limit stated on the pasta cooker (I think that the general rule is no more than 4 servings).
And that’s it! This pasta has been a go-to of mine for lunch at the lab, at the office, or at home for many years. I’ll be making this with our daughter the day before she embarks on her great college adventure, in hopes that she’ll make it in her dorm room and be reminded of her loving family at home.
- 1½"-wide bunch of spaghetti*
- 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper (about 15 grinds)
- Optional add-in ideas:
- ¼ tsp. dried Italian herbs
- ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup (total) of any of the following:
- torn arugula leaves
- cooked asparagus or broccoli
- cooked chicken
- canned tuna, drained well
- Break the bunch of pasta in half and lay flat in the bottom of the pasta cooker. Add the salt and 1 cup of water; shake gently from side to side to mix. Microwave uncovered for 6-7 minutes, watching carefully to be sure that the pasta doesn't dry out (add another ¼ cup of water if it does). Stir after 3 minutes to break up any clumps of pasta. After 6 minutes, check the texture of the pasta to see if it's done to your liking: after the microwave has turned off, open the door and let the pasta cooker sit for ~10 seconds. Carefully remove the cooker from the microwave using the handles of the pasta cooker. Use a fork to remove a single strand of spaghetti. Return the cooker to the microwave, if necessary, and continue cooking as needed until the spaghetti reaches your desired texture.
- When the spaghetti is slightly past al dente, there should be only about a tablespoon of cooking liquid left.** Don't drain it! Add the pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, Parmesan cheese (if using), and any additional optional ingredients.*** Toss the pasta with a fork to completely coat the spaghetti. Serve.
**If there IS a lot more liquid than about a tablespoon, carefully drain the excess. You can also microwave for an extra 30 seconds, which will allow the pasta to absorb some of the remaining liquid. If there's LESS than a tablespoon left in the cooker, don't sweat it: the pasta will still be great!
***If you are adding tuna or cooked chicken, you may want to cover and microwave for 20 seconds after you add it to the pasta.