Monday, May 25, 2009

Improvised Pastas

My favorite food in the whole world is a tomato. They are the one food I cannot live without. Show me a food better than the tomato. Fried corn and tomatoes, bacon and tomatoes: they play very well with others. However, in the summer I eat them like apples; they're perfect by themselves. Sure, they're nightshades, poison to some, very acidic, but I'll never turn my back on them.

I used to hate any tomato-based pasta dish I'd ever make from scratch. The sauce always tasted metallic. Lately, I've been having good luck with little sauces. I'm committed to the idea of making the perfect tomato sauce.

Here are two pasta dishes we've made in the last little while:

All great dishes start out with sauteing onions in olive oil, then adding some garlic and a pesto cube.

I made a big bunch of pesto last summer (minus cheese) and froze it in ice cube trays. I know they've passed their best by date, but I still use them. I have a bag of basil pesto cubes and a bag of arugula pesto cubes. Please try arugula pesto. You're doing yourself a great disservice if you do not.

After the onions soften, then you add whatever other veggies you want (The first dish had spinach, peppers, and chopped canned artichokes), turn the heat up really high so that you get a nice char on everything, then pour in some white wine (In this case, Old Fort White Something-Another from Beans Creek Winery--Spring Break trip with Bethany and Mark 2009!) to deglaze the pan, scrapping up the brown bits. Next, I added a 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes. I boiled up some whole wheat spaghetti and mixed the two together in a big bowl given to me by my sweet sister-in-law as a wedding present. This was very simple and clean tasting...but I wanted more tomato, something more akin to soup than salsa to cover my noodles.

The second dish was a meat sauce made leisurely last Sunday night. I started out by putting 1 lb. of lean ground sirloin and a pesto cube (maybe a tidbit of butter, but who's keeping track?) into my big ol' cast iron dutch oven. I chopped some onions and peppers and added those guys in (don't let 'em get too soft).

A note about the red bell pepper: I simply cannot do without red bell peppers. I hate how expensive they can be, but they are simple pleasures I've found that I cannot live without. Frozen peppers will do at times, but some times I need them crunchy and delectable in their fresh state. I rationalize that I do not spend money on fancy shoes or that pesky (not to mention bland) Banana Republic anymore, so why not?

I added some red pepper flakes, some homemade chili powder, oregano, probably a myriad of other spices I can't remember, and some s & p and let that go for a while. I added some chopped canned artichoke hearts and three cans of tomatoes to get my fix (1 28 oz. can of sauce, 1 28 oz. can of crushed, and 1 14.5 oz. can of fire roasted diced)! I let that come up to a simmer and added a pinch of sugar. The sugar cannot be avoided, mind you (not entirely true--you might be able to figure something out with agave syrup or your favorite sugar substitute). The sweetness from the sugar balances the acidity of the tomatoes. I then added 2 bay leaves and a parm rind from the freezer and let it simmer away for as long as we could wait: about 45 minutes, I'm guessing.

In the meantime, I boiled the pasta water, salted it well (always add more salt than you think is sufficient) and added a box of rigatoni. In a separate pan, I sauteed some cremini mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter until all the butter was absorbed. I deglazed the pan with some leftover marsala wine we had for some incredible chicken marsala you'll hear about some day. These mushrooms were incredible. I'd intended to fold them into the sauce, but I didn't want their flavor to get lost in with everything else. So, I poured the mixture into the bottom of my baking dish. When the noodles were done, I poured them in a big bowl and added enough sauce to cover them well. I poured this on top of the layer of mushrooms and topped it with pecorino romano cheese, parm, and skim mozz. I baked it at 450 for 10 minutes and yeah, it was the best so far.

A few interesting bits of info re: at-home pasta goodness:
1. You don't have to spring for the expensive tomatoes. My darling Lynne prefers Hunt's.
2. Trader Joe's never ceases to amaze me. They're dried pasta has proven to be better than many of the more expensive products that get me with the flashy packaging. See this article. Thanks for the info Claudia/Lesley.

Also, I'm in the midst of a culinary love affair with Ina Garten! I once counted her a nemesis with her condescending descriptors of "good olive oil," etc. Now I know what it's all about: more details to come, maybe.

Please stop, Ina. That's tacky. I'm a married woman.

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