High on the list of cold-weather favorites is pasta, something we have all year long, but that especially hits the mark this time of year.
The aroma of a marinara or Bolognese sauce simmering on the stove signals one of the best of comfort foods. My guess is that we have made these tomato-based sauces hundreds of times, whether the recipe is from your grandmother or one that comes out of your own cooking creativity.
It is certainly not a difficult dish. And that's the point: As you think about pasta for dinner, why not give the old-fashioned tomato sauce a rest, just for now? Try another sauce instead. Sacrilege? Never, but there are others that can bring a little variety to your pasta game, and are just as easy and quick to put together. They don't have to be fussy or complicated to be good.
These also make use of ingredients like fresh vegetables, mushrooms, fish, cream, olive oil, herbs and even lemon, as well as a grocery list of other ingredients, all bringing flavor and texture. Among others, I'm thinking Alfredo, a sauce based on butter, with garlic and cheese (sometimes in a white sauce); carbonara made with egg, cheese, bacon and pepper; and pasta primavera. One of the quickest is aglio e olio — simply sauteed garlic, olive oil and a dash of red pepper flakes.
Let's not forget pesto, that basil, garlic and olive oil favorite that may be the most versatile of all. In addition to going into pasta, it brings additional flavor to cooked vegetables and sandwiches, to name just two. We have Italy to thank for these, except primavera. The story goes that a chef in one of New York's fanciest restaurants was short on ingredients and combined fresh spring vegetables to a garlicy cream sauce. It was an instant hit.
Chef Vincenzo Giangiordano, the master pasta maker at Terza's, says the secret to the best sauces is using fresh, local ingredients. He has a fresh mushroom sauce that I was lucky enough to have some months ago. I still dream about it.
Watching him put it all together was a lesson in culinary skills, from peeling the mushrooms (yes, really) to how he prepared the pasta. Chef cooks the mushrooms twice to get them caramelized. Interesting, too, is that he took a little water from the pasta and added it to the sauce at the end, a step many cooks do. The pasta is also not drained, but rather, he takes tongs and places the pasta directly onto serving plates. His recipe is included here.
Not all pasta sauces need to be cooked. An especially delicious one uses fresh tomatoes chopped into bite-sized pieces, marinated a few minutes in a little olive oil, then mixed with fresh basil and stirred into hot pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Tomato season is almost over, but store-bought tomatoes will work. Pesto is not cooked, either. (Try a spoonful mixed with the fresh tomato sauce.) Interestingly, pasta sauces have a long history, reaching back centuries. However, the first recorded use of tomatoes was in a French cookbook from 1797.
Food Processor Pesto
(From Marcella Hazan)
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
1/2 cup extra virgin oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before putting in food processor
1/2 cup grated parmesan-reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened
Place basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic and an ample pinch of salt into the processor bowl. Process to a uniform, creamy consistency. Transfer to a bowl and mix the two grated cheeses in by hand. When cheese is evenly distributed mix in the softened butter. When spooning the pesto over pasta, dilute it slightly with a tablespoon or two of the pasta water. (To freeze leave out the cheese and butter and add when it is thawed, just before using.)
Chef's Mushroom Wine Sauce
2 cups fresh mushrooms (baby bella), cleaned and cut into thin slices
8 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
3 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup pasta water (hot, salted water from cooking pasta)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
Saute mushrooms in 4 tablespoons of the olive oil for 8-10 minutes over medium-high heat until slightly browned. Drain any water out of the mushrooms with a fine mesh strainer. Place them back into the saute pan with another 4 tablespoons of light olive oil. Add garlic and continue to saute over medium-high heat for 1-2 minutes. Mushrooms should get crispy and caramelized. Add the wine, thyme, parsley and simmer to let wine evaporate. Lower the heat and add butter and pasta water (the salt and starch will add to this sauce.) Add hot pasta directly to the sauce in the pan and stir gently for 1 minute to finish. Serve with tagliatelle pasta. Finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, fresh thyme and finely grated Parmesan cheese.
Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon
8 slices of bacon, cooked crisp, and set aside
1 lb. brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved and outer leaves removed
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Shredded Parmesan for serving
8 ounces short pasta, like cavatappi, cooked al dente
Using the bacon drippings, heat over medium-high and add brussels sprouts and shallots, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring from time to time. Add olive oil if skillet looks dry. The sprouts should turn dark brown in spots and be tender in about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar and mustard and toss well to combine, scraping the bottom of the pan. With a slotted pan remove pasta to the skillet, then stir in 1 cup of the hot pasta water, tossing the mixture, until liquid reduces and coats the pasta, 3 minutes. Crumble bacon over the top and serve with Parmesan.
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to email@example.com.