Pasta with Simple Tomato Sauce

In an ideal world, I would head to my garden in late August and harvest sweet cherry tomatoes, then I’d cook them into a sauce that could be bottled and used throughout the year.  This is what my parents did in Sicily.  The reality is that I do not have their garden, their soil, nor their climate.  However, a delicious, simple tomato sauce can be made from a can of good quality Italian plum tomatoes – preferably San Marzano. 

Once you master it, you can build on it.  You can add onions, spice it up with some peperoncino or a sprig or two of rosemary, or even add bacon or pancetta to it.  The variations are endless. For a smoother sauce, you can transfer the sauce to a tall plastic container and gently pulse the sauce with an immersion blender.

Servings: 6

Ingredients

  • 1 pound of pasta (I prefer long pasta like spaghetti or bucatini, or a short, small pasta like penne with this simple tomato sauce)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for a final drizzle
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed (you can whack them with the palm of your hand or the flat side of a knife)
  • One 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • Kosher salt to taste, plus more for the pasta water
  • 6-10 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces at the last minute
  • ½ cup of grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
  2. Heat the oil in a 2 to 3 quart saucepan over medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes. 
  3. Pour the tomatoes and their juices into the saucepan and, with a potato masher, whisk, or wooden spoon, gently mash the tomatoes and stir.  
  4. Bring the sauce to a slight boil and season lightly with salt.
  5. Lower the heat to a simmer and continue to break up the tomatoes while cooking for an additional 20 minutes.  Remove the garlic cloves.
  6. Meanwhile, add the pasta to your boiling water, timing it carefully so the pasta is barely al dente when the sauce is ready.
  7. Stir the basil into the sauce approximately 2 minutes before the sauce is finished.  Taste and season with more salt if necessary.  If your sauce needs a little sweetness, you can add a pinch of sugar or a slight drizzle of honey and stir.  The quality of your canned tomato will determine whether that is necessary.
  8. Transfer your al dente pasta with tongs directly into the sauce in the skillet and toss to coat the pasta with the sauce. 
  9. Add the grated cheese and an extra drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil before serving in a shallow bowl.

Pecorino Romano

The word pecorino comes from the word pecora, or sheep.  Pecorino is a sheep’s milk cheese and is typically the cheese of choice in the southern part of Italy.  Pecorino has a soft and yellow interior that gets firm and crumbly as it ages.  The cheese also can become quite aromatic and salty as it ages. 

Pecorino produced in the regions of Sardegna, Sicily, Lazio and Tuscany all have varying characteristics.  Here in America, Pecorino Romano is the most easily found and is often used on southern inspired pasta dishes.

Grana Padano

The name grana comes from the word grain, and Padano refers to the valley around the Po River where it is produced.  Grana Padano is a hard cow’s milk cheese that is cooked and aged slowly and is made in the Italian regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, and the Veneto.

I use it as a grating cheese, for fillings in pasta (like my Pasta with American Amatriciana Sauce), and shaved onto salads. I also like to use it on baked vegetables.  I also like to add Grana Padano rinds to my soups and serve chunks of different ages of it with seasonal fruit and toasted bread.

Pasta with American Amatriciana Sauce

Once you master a good tomato sauce, the next step is to do like they do in Rome – add some pork for extra flavor.  The traditional way in Rome is to add guanciale or pork cheek, but at home, I simply replace that with bacon.  Some Romans swear you must add lots of onions, but I prefer to create it without them when making a quick version at home.  They also typically serve it with grated Pecorino Romano, but I also like it with grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Servings: 6

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Heat 6 quarts of water with 1 tablespoon of salt in a large pot to cook the pasta.
  2. In a wide skillet, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  After about 1 minute, add the garlic and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the bacon and stir for approximately 4-5 minutes, until it’s sizzling.
  4. Add the San Marzano tomatoes. With a potato masher or wooden spoon, gently crush the tomatoes in the skillet while gently stirring the sauce.  Cook for an additional 15 minutes.  (You can also turn the heat up to medium-high and cook for a little less time.)
  5. When the tomatoes have been added to the skillet and the sauce is simmering, start cooking the pasta according to the package directions. Once the pasta is al dente, remove from the pot with tongs and drop it into the simmering sauce.  Toss together continuously, over moderate heat, for another 1-2 minutes until the pasta is coated with the sauce.  You can add some of the pasta cooking water if you need to thin the sauce.
  6. Turn off the heat and toss in the grated cheese.  Add a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil and serve. 

Apples

When baking, I typically use Granny Smith apples since their tart flavor helps keep the end product from becoming too sweet.  If you don’t have Granny Smith in the house, you can also use Jonagold, Braeburn, Cortland, or Honeycrisp.  

Apple Crisp

In Italy, the traditional baked fruit-based dessert is called a crostata.  Although I love a crostata made with seasonal fruit for either dessert or breakfast, the “fruit crisp” that I discovered here is just as delicious and easier to make. 

Fruit crisps are very similar to fruit crumbles, except that the crisps contain oats, making it a perfect breakfast food for me and my family.  I like this dish for dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.  You can also serve it with a dollop of plain yogurt for breakfast.

Servings: 6-8

Ingredients

Fruit base:

  • 6 Granny Smith apples, or 4 apples and 2 peaches (see note*)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 tablespoons apple cider

Crisp topping:

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup oats
  • ¾ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ cup cold salted butter, cut into pieces (you can also use unsalted butter and add a pinch of salt instead)
  • 4 teaspoons of maple quinoa granola (or substitute 3 tablespoons of regular granola and one tablespoon of maple syrup)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. 
  2. Peel, halve and core the apples, then slice them into ¼-inch slices.  Place in a 10 ½ x 7 inch baking dish or 6-8 individual ramekins.
  3. In a medium-size bowl, mix the ingredients for the crisp with your hands so the pieces of butter are incorporated well.  
  4. Break the mixture into small chunks and evenly distribute over the fruit.
  5. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown.  
  6.  Serve warm, or refrigerate overnight for a delicious breakfast treat.

*Note: You can also use Braeburn, Cortland or Jonagold apples when in season.  Adjusting the quantity to 4 apples and 2 peaches works well in the late summer months.

Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard, dry cheese made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow’s milk.  It is aged at least two years, and has a pale golden rind and a rich, sharp flavor.

It takes its name from the beautiful town of Parma. The words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled on the rind mean that the cheese was produced in Italy in the towns of Bologna, Mantura, Modena, or Parma.  If you see the name “Parmesan”, it is simply a different product.

The cheese is aromatic and versatile; I use it as a grating cheese for pasta, soups, and stuffings.  I also use it on baked vegetables, and often serve it in chunks with a drizzle of balsamic and a little seasonal fruit. 

Aged Parmigiano-Reggiano is even more special, but I save that for special occasions and holidays.

Cheddar Cheese

I must admit, I did not taste cheddar cheese until I arrived in the United States at the age of 34.  It is the most widely purchased and eaten cheese in the world. Cheddar cheese is made from cow’s milk, and unfortunately, any cheese producing company can call their cheese “cheddar,” as it is not protected (like other cheese names or brands). 

Cheddar is a hard and natural cheese that is slightly crumbly in texture if properly cured, and smooth if it’s young.  It develops a sharper taste as it matures between 9 and 24 months.  I do not use cheddar cheese very often, but my children do like it in their frittatas (like my Potato and Herb Frittata). 

Look for a cheddar with only milk, cultures, enzymes and salt. Aged or sharp cheddar has a more intense flavor. Always opt for a block, which is typically less expensive and has less additives and preservatives than packaged shredded cheese.

Chives

I did not inherit my father’s green thumb, and chives are one of those herbs that just keep coming back without me doing anything.  (I simply planted them in a pot 15 years ago when we moved to the suburbs.  I move the pot into the garage over the winter, and bring it back out in the spring). 

My children are not very fond of onions, and chives offer a mild onion flavor to many dishes that call for an onion.  Plus, they’re easy to chop.  Don’t be afraid to add a few chopped chives to dishes like pasta, salad, and rice dishes.  They add a nice taste of freshness.

Potato and Herb Frittata

Italians are not known for eating large breakfasts. They might start their day with an espresso or cappuccino with a simple pastry, toast or cookie.  The frittata, an egg-based Italian dish similar to an omelette, is typically eaten for lunch, dinner, or as a snack.  At my house, we typically eat it as a weekend brunch or lunch. 

My children like their scrambled eggs loose and fluffy, so making a cheesy, creamy frittata that is not too “eggy” is how I get them all to enjoy it.  (I also keep it light on the vegetables, and often make it with potatoes, scallions, and just a few herbs instead).  Frittatas keep well, so you can also use them as sandwich fillings or serve them with a simple green salad. 

Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 12 eggs, whisked just until the egg yolks and whites are blended
  • 3 tablespoons heavy cream or half and half
  • 3 cups cooked potatoes, sliced (you can also mix in some seasoned vegetables with your potatoes – just adjust the amount so that the total equals 3 cups)
  • ½ cup of chopped scallions (include the green part)
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated, shredded, or crumbled cheese (my preference is Grana Padano, Parmigiano Reggiano, or sharp cheddar)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2-3 chives, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 leaves of fresh basil, chopped or torn for garnish

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Crack the eggs into a medium-size mixing bowl. Add your cream or half and half and the salt. Whisk just until the egg yolks and whites are blended.
  3. Whisk in all or half of the cheese (you can reserve the other half for topping the frittata before baking, if desired). Set the mixture aside.
  4. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe skillet), warm the olive oil over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the potatoes and scallions and cook for 2-3 minutes. Season with salt, to taste.
  5. Whisk the eggs again and pour over the potatoes.  Using a spatula, distribute the mixture evenly across the pan.  If you chose to reserve some of the cheese, sprinkle the remainder on top of the frittata now.
  6. Cook for approximately 30-60 seconds until the outside of the frittata turns lighter in color and then transfer the frittata to the oven. 
  7. Bake for approximately 7-10 minutes, until the eggs are puffed and opaque, and the center of the frittata still shakes a little bit when you move the pan.  (Remember that a frittata continues to cook after it’s removed from the oven, so leaving it a little loose is important so you don’t have a dry frittata with the texture of a sponge.)
  8. Garnish with a few basil leaves, slice, and serve.

Note:  If your family likes vegetables in their frittatas, I like a zucchini, mozzarella and basil combination. Chives, bell pepper and basil also go well together.  For something a little less Italian, I like manchego with cilantro and chives.