Here’s how most guys make pasta at home: Open jar of pasta sauce; combine with drained boiled pasta. If you’re one of those guys, no shame. You’re cooking at home! But, look, with a few simple steps beyond what you already do, you could cook a pasta dinner that rivals restaurant fare. Call it sauce-doctoring. Call it “semi-homemade.” Or just call it spending a little more quality time with your stovetop.

“The most underused room in the house is the kitchen,” says Jesse Palmer, a special contributor to Good Morning America. Palmer’s not a celebrity chef (though he was an NFL quarterback), but he does have a love for food, and not always whole lot of time to cook it. So he borrowed a lesson from his mom.

“My mother is the most amazing cook I’ve ever met,” Palmer says. “She’s not always by the book. She fosters exploration. That’s one of the things she taught me that I now love about cooking. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about experimenting.”

Kitchen improvisation is key, says Palmer, and the recipe that follows (inspired by his mom) acts as a perfect testing ground for flavours. Want even more umami? Toss in some chopped kalamata olives. Like it salty? Try throwing in a palmful of chopped capers. “I’m not one to put some lemon pepper seasoning on a chicken breast and grill it. I need something with a multitude of flavours,” Palmers says.

Cook this recipe once and you’ll understand. Cook it again, the next time a little different, and you’ll understand even more.

Pasta with Vodka Sauce, Shiitake Mushrooms, and Bacon Crisps
Recipe by Jesse Palmer (with respect to his mother)

What you’ll need:

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
⅔ cup chopped parsley
3 or 4 slices chopped bacon
1 cup chopped shiitake mushrooms
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
1 cup fresh chopped spinach or arugula
700ml jar gourmet vodka tomato sauce (or try regular tomato sauce with two tablespoons of vodka to bring out the taste)
250g package porcini mushroom tortellini
Shaved Parmesan, for garnish

How to make it:

1. Prepare a large pot of salted water and heat over medium. In a sauté pan over medium, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil. Add the garlic and sauté till soft, about 3 minutes. Add the parsley, stir well, and then transfer everything to a plate to reserve.

2. In the same pan you used to cook the garlic, add the bacon, and cook until crisp, 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook till crisp, 3 minutes. Then add the parsley mixture, and stir. Add the shallots, cooking until soft, 2 minutes, then add the spinach and cook till wilted, about 2 minutes. Add the sauce and lower the heat to medium low.

3. Boil the pasta and drain well. In each bowl add a few tortellini and cover with sauce. Add toasted pine nuts, kalamata olives, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or capers, if desired. Makes 2 servings.