Friday, April 22, 2011

Love Pasta!

Who doesn’t love pasta? No one I know. Along with bread and potatoes it completes the trifecta of my favorite foods. When I think of comfort food a plate of good penne with homemade tomato sauce flavored with fresh basil is at the top of my list. Having parents who emigrated to the U.S. from southern Italy, pasta dishes were commonplace dinner time entrees and continue today as mainstay items on our holiday and family get-together buffets. 

This classic Penne with Tomato Sauce recipe I am sharing with you today marks the debut of my food blog, Cucinare which means “to cook” in Italian. I have chosen it because it reflects a lot about how I cook – simple, fresh, lots of Italian, delicious!  It is a wonderfully simple sauce taught to me by my mother who prepared pasta with a hearty, beef based tomato sauce every week for as long as I can remember. Every Sunday morning before we went to mass Mom prepared her meatballs and got the sauce started. While at mass it would slowly simmer and be ready when we returned home.  Meat --beef or pork or a combination of the two and/or meatballs-- back then were almost always in Mom’s Sunday sauce. When my four sisters and I married we followed suit and prepared our pasta sauces in the same way. Why wouldn't we, Mom’s sauce was delicious!

As we became more health conscious the meat was eliminated and the sauce was retooled into this classic version which today remains our family’s universal pasta sauce.  The addition of fresh basil, which was not so readily available when I was young, gives the sauce its fresh and authentic Italian flavor. It’s also great as the sauce base for making lasagna or in meat dishes like chicken parmesan, or to add richness to a bean soup. Served over good penne and sprinkled with freshly grated cheese (I prefer Grana Padano) it is truly one of my favorite dishes and my quintessential comfort food. 

My recipe for this fresh sauce takes its roots from Mom’s Sunday sauce that always started with a healthy quarter cup of good olive oil to which chopped garlic, onions and a small amount of carrots are sautéed.  The carrots helped to sweeten the sauce and cut the bitterness out of the tomatoes. Cooked till nice and soft this forms the flavor base for the sauce. 

The choice of tomatoes dictates the overall texture of the sauce. Depending on both availability and preference, the sauce can vary from a smooth amalgamation to a chunky blend of ingredients. I prefer to use the 6- in-1 brand of all-purpose ground tomatoes in heavy puree. While San Marzano are the gourmet's choice, I prefer these as they are more readily available in my local markets and half the price of the San Marzano's. The 6-in-1  produces a sauce that has a sweet tomato flavor, is coarse, not chunky, in texture, and sufficiently covers just about any pasta shape.  The better the quality of tomatoes the better the sauce, but, any canned tomatoes can be used – diced, whole or crushed.  One caution is that unless the tomatoes are canned in puree, they will not produce a thick enough sauce to sufficiently coat the pasta. To remedy that, I add a few tablespoons of tomato paste.  Of course, fresh tomatoes are always a good choice but due to their sometimes high water content, the sauce may need the addition of some tomato paste as well and require a much longer cooking time. 

Fresh basil is the real secret to this sauce as it add a fresh taste and distinctive flavor. Never replace it with dried. But, in its fresh state it is extremely perishable and therefore, can be expensive. As good as it is I find it difficult to use the whole quantity I purchase before it blackens. You don’t need that much for a batch of pasta sauce so unless you use it almost every day for other recipes it will spoil on you. So in order to make the most of my dollar, I use what I need for the sauce and then freeze the rest. 

Yes, you can freeze it successfully.  Separate the leaves from the stalks. Wash, spin dry and then blot with a paper towel to get them really dry. Pack the leaves into a plastic bag and place in the freezer for later use. When the time comes, just break off a few pieces right out of the freezer bag, crush in your hand and drop into your cooking mixture. Surprisingly, the flavor of the frozen leaves is pretty close to fresh and superior to any dried basil. The frozen leaves, however, are only good for cooking. They will not reconstitute well enough to use uncooked. 

Selecting ‘good’ quality pasta makes a marked difference in this recipe. Penne is my personal favorite in terms of pasta shape. You can tell the quality by its wheat base, bite, color, texture and taste.  Good pasta has a firm, chewy bite to it, not gummy, sticky or mushy. It  should be made from 100% Durum wheat and has a pale amber color with a matte finish.  It is certainly not bland and has a distinctive, nutty flavor that blends beautifully with this classic tomato sauce. I also find that better quality pastas take a bit longer to cook. The Garofalo brand sold at Costco fits the criteria and is a good quality pasta.
Penne with Tomato Sauce

4 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 good sized cloves of garlic, minced
½ c. finely chopped onion or one medium onion
½ c. finely chopped sweet red pepper
½ c. finely chopped carrot
1 – 28oz. cans crushed tomatoes
½ can water, just enough to loosen up the sauce
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper (optional)
3 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
3 Tbsp. minced fresh basil

Add oil to a hot 5 qt. sauce pot. Sauté onion, red pepper and carrot for about 5 minutes or till veggies begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two making sure not to burn or brown the garlic as this will make the sauce bitter. Add the tomatoes and the water.  For a smoother sauce, pulse the tomatoes and water in a food processor before adding to pot. Season the mixture with the salt and pepper. Cook for 30 minutes or till a good consistency is achieved. The sauce shouldn’t be too watery or too thick. Add the parsley and basil. Cook for another 5-10 minutes. The sauce is now ready to pour over pasta or to use in other preparations.  This recipe makes enough sauce to accommodate 4-6 generous servings of pasta.  Delicious!

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