My sister writes to say that her daughter, now in her second year at MIT, is looking for recipes. Dining halls and many other campus dining options aren't open during January, so she and a group of her friends are doing a dinner rotation. Here's a couple of my favorites that are easy, fun and delicious.
One of the simplest and most flavorful pasta sauces is called puttanesca (look it up). There are many variations -- I first learned mine from my very favorite cookbook, Jack Bishop's Pasta e Verdura.
For four people, use a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. (Jack recommends whole tomatoes, roughly chopped, but I typically use diced -- depends on what texture you want).
Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and 1/2 tsp of hot red pepper flakes. Saute that over medium heat for a minute or two, until the garlic turns golden.
Then add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of drained capers, and about 16 olives, pitted and chopped. Jack recommends half black (like Kalamatas) and half green (like Spanish Queens) but really, you can use whatever's handy. Simmer that until the sauce is the consistency you want -- takes about fifteen minutes. You can use a fork to mash the tomatoes a little bit if you want it smoother.
That's it. While the sauce is simmering you can cook and drain the pasta. I typically use linguine, but spaghetti or any other long thin shape works great (figure three to four ounces pasta per person). Mix the pasta and the sauce and serve it up.
I usually sprinkle a little fresh grated parmesan on mine, but don't do that unless you've got really good parmesan -- it's expensive, but you only need a little bit. And getting good parmesan in Boston should be a snap!
If there's just one or two of you, use a small can of tomatos and reduce the rest of the ingredients appropriately. Once you've had it a couple of times you'll get the hang of what proportions you want to use.
I've got nothing against jarred pasta sauces, particularly those made by Classico or Barilla. Here's a lemon-chicken pasta that uses Classico's tomato and basil sauce.
Grate the skin of a lemon with the medium grate of a standard box grater (which you ought to have in your kitchen anyway). Then juice the lemon -- you should get about 1/4 cup of juice. Mince three or four garlic cloves. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest (the grated skin), and the garlic to about 1/3 cup of olive oil in a small frying pan. Heat on medium just until the mixture froths up for a minute or two.
While that's cooling, cut up a couple of chicken breasts into the thinnest strips you can manage (if they're slightly frozen, it makes the slicing easier). Put the chicken pieces in a bowl and pour the marinade over them. Mix them well with your hands so that all of the pieces are well-coated with marinade. Let that sit for half an hour.
Set a large skillet (or a wok, if you have one) over medium to medium-high heat. Pour the chicken and marinade in, and saute the chicken until it's white, then pour in a jar of pasta sauce (like I said, I use Classico's tomato and basil or tomato and sweet basil. A jarred marinara would work well too. I would not use a sauce that has other flavors in it, because that might clash with the lemon-garlic-chicken flavor).
Let that simmer while you fix the pasta.
Leftover sauce will keep for a week or two -- I always make enough for two or three meals. And you can double the whole thing if you've got a large crew to feed.
If this kind of thing appeals to you, get a copy of Jack's book (mentioned above). Over the past few years I've probably made half the recipes in that book and every single one has been fantastic. Plus, I've learned a tremendous amount about cooking. I've got several other of his cookbooks and they're all wonderful, but Pasta e Verdura is the very best of all.