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A simple recipe + playlist for the perfect night in

A simple recipe + playlist for the perfect night in

This post was created in partnership with Barilla, my favorite pasta brand! 

Hi guys! Happy Friday! Neal and I are checking in downtown tonight for our big anniversary staycation–hooray!! We’re so excited! If you’re in the mood to stay in tonight, you’re in luck, because today we’re talking about how to have a simple, but special, night in! Whether that’s with your significant other, your girlfriends, or just yourself–you’re going to love this post!

First, the perfect recipe!

The key here is to stick to something simple, yet special.

Of course, I LOVE cooking a more elaborate meal every now and then, but these days, who has time?! Just because you’re strapped for time and stressed out doesn’t mean you can’t cook a special (and impressive) dinner! This pasta recipe is easy but super delicious and impressive, and will make even a week night with girlfriends feel special!

This recipe is actually inspired by the event I attended earlier this week with Barilla® at Spiaggia–it’s a riff on what Chef Joe Flamm (yes, of Top Chef–season 15! I got to meet him and he is the coolest!) made for us during his cooking demo with their Collezione pasta line. I also got to meet Mikaela Shiffrin and Roger Federer–Barilla sponsors both of them and they are in town for the Laver Cup. (By the way, if you’re going this weekend, make sure to visit the Barilla Masters of Pasta Cucina in the Laver Cup Fan Village at the United Center!)

Anywayyy–back to the food. What makes Barilla Collezione so special? It’s more textured and porous than other pastas due to how the pasta is cut–with special bronze dies. Why should you care? Because that means it’s even better at soaking up and holding alll the delicious pasta sauce. It’s like regular pasta, but kicked up in the gourmet department!

You guys know I’m really picky about the partnerships I take on–I only promote brands that I truly love and use regularly. Barilla is the pasta brand I’ve grown up with my whole life (I have a distinct memory of opening our pantry as a child to get a snack and seeing about 8 different blue boxes of Barilla!) It’s still my favorite pasta brand today–there are about 9 different Barilla boxes in my own cupboard right now, too!

Fun fact: When we took our cooking class in Tuscany (which you must do, by the way, if you ever visit) Nonna Ciana, who was our teacher, explained that Italians don’t typically make all of their pasta from scratch–which was a big surprise to me! The wide, long pastas (paperdalle, tagliatelle, etc) as well as the stuffed pastas (ravioli, tortellini, etc) are typically always made from scratch–but shapes like penne, buccatini, spaghetti, etc–are dried! (Think about it–how would Nonna make Bucatini or Rigatoni by hand!? That would be quite labor intensive.) For dried pasta–the Italian fan favorite brand is Barilla–you see it everywhere!

You know if it’s what the Italians buy–it’s the real deal 😉

Anyway–this brings me to part one of our “night in” concept–the perfect pasta recipe! It’s SO easy, yet feels special enough for date night or a night entertaining girlfriends. It’s rustic, homey, and feels like a hug in a bowl. (Note: It’s technically vegetarian but you can easily add chicken or Italian sausage!) Whether you’re a seasoned cook or you’ve never “made your own pasta sauce” in your life and really want to impress your friends with a restaurant quality meal–this is THE recipe for you! They’ll never know how easy it was!

Perfect Spaghetti Pomodoro

Perfect Spaghetti Pomodoro: 

1 box Barilla Collezione Spaghetti or Bucatini (measure out individual servings based on how many people you have!)

1 28 oz can of San Marzano tomatoes (these are THE BEST. You can find them in the Italian section of most grocery stores these days–they make a big difference!)

4 garlic cloves, minced

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

3 large basil leaves (more or less depending on your tastes)

1/2 cup of grated Parmigiana reggiano 

2 TBS good butter (splurge on the real stuff!)

1 pinch red pepper flakes 

Perfect Spaghetti Pomodoro

How to make it: 

Pour the canned tomatoes into a blender or food processor and pulse (this is totally based on your preference–blend until smooth or just pulse a couple times if you prefer a chunkier sauce). If you don’t have a blender or food processor, I’ve smashed them with a fork before (or just crush them with your hands) and it also turns out totally great!

Heat olive oil in a skillet on medium-low heat. Add olive oil to heat through. Add garlic, cook while stirring frequently, about 3-4 minutes. (Watch it closely! You don’t want it to burn!) Add sauce to the pan, and season very lightly with salt (you can always add more later). Cook for about 20 minutes, to let flavors meld. Remove from heat after 20 minutes, and stir in basil leaves.

Meanwhile, while the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil–seasoned with salt. (DO NOT FORGET THE SALT! Your pasta will be awful without it!) As a general rule of thumb you should do between 2 TBS and 4 TBS of salt per gallon of water. I don’t really measure so I just salt it until I can very obviously tastes the salt in the water (I think of it kind of like a “light ocean water” level of saltiness). The amount will depend on how much other salt you’re adding–like if you were adding bacon, for example, you’d probably want to lessen the salt vs this recipe, which doesn’t have much else, so I err on the heavier side.

Cook pasta according to directions, and remove JUST before it’s done. (Like, almost done but a LITTLE crunchy…2 minutes before Al Dente, if you can guess. Use your best judgement here–it’s better to take it out too early than too late). Drain, but reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

Bring your sauce back to a simmer over high heat. Stir in the pasta water little by little until you get the sauce to the thickness you’d like. Remove the basil from the sauce. (You just wanted to infuse the flavor of it lightly). Add the pasta, and cook the rest of the way until al dente–about 2 minutes. (This is what Chef Joe Flamm does–except he finished the pasta in fancy fresh tomato juice–I’ll leave that part to him though :-P)

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in freshly grated cheese, and butter. (The butter adds this silky rich finish that is amazing! You can obviously skip this if you’re wanting to be healthier, but why not go all the way?!)

Serve in bowls, plates, whatever your heart desires–garnish with more fresh basil on top, if you wish!


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Perfect Spaghetti Pomodoro + wine


Perfect Spaghetti Pomodoro - The Golden Girl

Suggested wine pairing:

Because we’re biased–we love a good Italian red with pasta! We fell in love with Chianti while we were there, as we spent quite a bit of time in the Chianti region of Tuscany–so we’d suggest a “Chianti Classico”–which was our favorite wine that we had in Italy. (Fun fact: A Chianti must be at least 80% Sangiovese grapes to qualify as a Chianti Classico–any less, and it’s just a Chianti.) It’s very dry and medium bodied, never sweet and it’s high acidity makes it the perfect match for Italian food–especially tomatoes and tomato sauces! I’d recommend finding a small, local wine shop, and asking for their recommendation! We’re rarely ever steered in the wrong direction!

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Next, the perfect playlist!


Next, the perfect playlist!

Neal and I love spending time in the kitchen just listening to music. Half the time we won’t even be cooking–we just like sitting at our kitchen counter drinking wine, talking and listening. You can often find us playing our favorite records on our record player, but other times, we like to play spotify, too!

A few of you guys had the best idea that you suggested on Instagram–you asked for a date night playlist to go along with this post! (Genius, I say!) Here’s a playlist of our go-to songs we’re always listening to on a night in!

Jess Keys

Other ideas:

Get creative with conversation:

How easy is it to fall into the same topics of conversation over and over again with someone you see EVERY day? Whether you’re grabbing dinner with your husband, your mom, or your friends–the same things always tend to come up.

This time, try something different! There are so many funny “internet lists” out there with interesting conversation starters (this is a great one!)–choose a few questions to answer instead! Like:

What’s the first movie that made you cry?

What’s the most memorable book you’ve ever read? What was it about?

What song do you most associate with your childhood?

If you could domesticate any animal in the world, which would you pick?

What place would you first travel to if you could teleport?

What’s something you always wanted to do as a child but never got to do it?

What famous artist, dead or alive, would you want to paint your portrait?

Turn off the tech

Blair was the first person to introduce me to the concept of “no tech night”–one night each week, she and her husband agree to turn off their phones for the night and just spend time with one another. It really reveals how much you’re on your phone without even noticing it! Rarely do we get a chance to unwind with our partners, friends or family without the interruption of our phones, iPads, or computers–so for your night in, leave your phones in airplane mode, in another room, whatever–until the end of the night!

Perfect Date Night

What’s your idea of the perfect date night? Would love to hear your tips, too!

Thanks to Barilla, my favorite pasta brand (and what my mom always bought, too!) for sponsoring this post! All opinions are, obviously, my own 😉 Thanks so much for supporting the brands that allow me to continue creating the best content possible for you!