Do you slave over a hot stove for hours perfecting your generations-old spaghetti sauce? The one your grandmother made, the one your mother made, the one your aunt across town made and to whom you traveled on Sundays because “her gravy was THE ONE!”
I don’t. At least not any more.
Blame it on Nino.
He is Nino Elia. He’s a chef of note here in the Lancaster PA area, who specializes in-home dinner parties, small events, and private cooking classes. Ellen and I met him doing a cooking-class presentation at my new favorite gourmet shop in the area, Zest! They called it Date Night with Nino!, and boy was it ever. Sixteen (mostly) cooking enthusiasts who love to get together and have a good time. This particular event was all about cooking Sicilian.
Nino presented pan-fried Kalamata olives with rosemary and ricotta salata, pollo alla vucciria–which he called Chicken Chaos (aptly named!), and spaghetti con pomodoro arrosto al forno, which basically is spaghetti with oven-roasted tomatoes and basil. It was all amazing.
When I was single and living in Olde City Philadelphia I used to make the spaghetti dish almost every night, because it is filling, healthy, cheap, and simple. But I didn’t know it had a name–to me it was spaghetti with a quick, fresh tomato and basil condiment.
Nino has raised this dish to an art form, taking it to a place beyond what I knew of Sicilian cuisine. It isn’t actually very far from what I used to make, but far enough to have awakened in me a new appreciation for what gets made for dinner in Sicily. I can imagine this dish being served nightly at homes all over the Italian island, and no one ever tiring of it–in fact, one can imagine alterations from time to time to keep the idea fresh.
So no more long, loving hours in the kitchen with red gravy (save that for some other recipe). Don’t cook your sauce to death. This one reeks of fresh ingredients. But also, it is so quick and simple that you will likely want to make this one of your go-to “dinners in a hurry.” That’s the way it ought to be.
Spaghetti con pomodoro arrosto al forno
12 ripe Roma tomatoes
5-8 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh basil, divided
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce: Cut the tomatoes in half and place on an olive-oiled baking sheet, skin side down. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, garlic, chopped basil, and olive oil. Bake for 20 minutes in a pre-heated 400-degree oven. After 20 minutes turn the tomatoes cut side down an bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover loosely with foil, and set aside until just before the pasta is finished. Pick off the skins and half the sauce in a large saute pan over low heat. Chop or mash the tomatoes into chunks, taste for salt and pepper and adjust the flavor.
For the pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes come out of the oven, add a tablespoon salt to the boiling water and stir once. Then add a box of spaghetti, stir once or twice, and cook for 2 minutes less than the recommended time on the package for al-dente pasta (the timing is important–the pasta will continue to cook after you remove it from the water). With a slotted spoon, remove the pasta from the water and place it in the pan with the sauce. Toss lightly to coat the pasta with the sauce.
Serve the pasta topped with the remaining sauce, garnished with more freshly chopped basil, freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Want to see more of Nino? Check him out at: https://www.facebook.com/Nino-Elia-145679935496202/
So today I’m faced with a challenge. We went to a new Italian restaurant for supper the other night, and it was wonderful—Salt & Pepper in the new Worthington shopping plaza on Oregon Pike, about halfway between Roseville Road and Landis Valley Road in Manheim Township. The best Italian food we have had since we moved here, other than homemade.
I had delicious linguine and clams in red sauce, E. had an excellent chicken Parmesan and spaghetti, and M. had spaghetti in vodka sauce, a light and creamy red sauce. It was an excellent meal.
The challenge, then, is to recreate the spaghetti in vodka sauce and make it even better than the restaurant’s version. I liked it, but I wished it had had a bit more of a spicy bite. I like my red sauces to have a little punch. Vodka sauce, on the other hand, is not particularly robust, relying on subtle but complex flavors mixed to perfection.
So what to do?
What I’ve done is replaced black pepper with white pepper, minced shallots instead of garlic, caramelized red onions instead of minced yellow ones, and a bit of sweet paprika and more red-pepper flakes than what most recipes call for. These changes add complexity to the dish. One further adjustment is that I use Absolut Peppar as the vodka in the recipe, but that is a personal vanity. Most any good vodka will do, but I truly like the layer of black pepper flavor it imparts. My favorite vodka is Blair and Brown, a true potato vodka made right here in Pennsylvania, but I’d rather savor that on the rocks with a bit of tonic and lime. Perhaps together?
Try this recipe at home. Use penne or linguine instead of spaghetti, and whole-wheat pastas will add a bit more bite to the dish. I’m certain you’ll like it, and will serve it to guests. It’s a true winner, sure to garner oohs and ahs from your friends and naysayers who think that vodka sauce is a bridge too far. That’s a bridge I willingly cross.
Penne with Vodka Sauce
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) , drained, liquid reserved
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, minced (about 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium shallots, minced
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika
1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
kosher salt and freshly ground WHITE pepper (much better than store-bought fine-ground)
1/3 cup vodka (try it with Absolut Peppar)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
2 whole sprigs fresh basil, plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
1. Puree half of tomatoes until smooth. Dice remaining tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine pureed and diced tomatoes in liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1 2/3 cups). Add reserved liquid to equal 2 cups.
2. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. To caramelize the onion, add onion and brown sugar and cook over a low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are light golden brown and soft, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste, and cook, stirring constantly about three minutes; add shallots, paprika, and pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Stir in tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove pan from heat and add vodka. Return pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower heat to medium if simmering becomes too vigorous. Remove the basil sprigs and stir in cream and cook until hot, about 1 minute.
4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water, and transfer pasta back to Dutch oven. Add sauce to pasta and toss over medium heat until pasta absorbs some of sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in the minced basil and adjust seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls, garnish with chopped basil, and serve immediately.
Morgan and her mom made these incredible spring rolls the other night for company, and they were a huge hit. I thought they were every bit as good as any I have had at a restaurant. Fact is, this is a restaurant recipe, from la Patisserie in Birmingham, Alabama, where a large Vietnamese population has resettled after the floods in New Orleans. There is a wonderful video that accompanies this recipe, for which I will post the link at the end of this recipe. Try these. You will need to find a good Asian market to get the rice wrappers, but if you haven’t found one already, you owe it to yourself to find one. Now. The one near us is wonderful, and always smells great. Very nice people, too.
Shrimp Spring Rolls
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 ounces rice vermicelli
24 baby shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 rice wrappers (8.5 inch diameter)
3 leaves lettuce, chopped
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
4 teaspoons finely chopped Thai basil
- Whisk vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, garlic, and red pepper flakes together in a small bowl. Set the dipping sauce aside.
- Fill a large bowl with room temperature water. Add rice vermicelli and soak for 1 hour.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in shrimp and cook until curled and pink, about 1 minute. Remove the shrimp and drain. Or you can buy precooked baby shrimp with the tails on. Defrost and pinch off the tails. Transfer rice vermicelli noodles to the pot of boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Remove and drain in a colander. Immediately rinse the vermicelli with cold water, stirring to separate the noodles.
- To assemble the rolls, dip 1 rice wrapper in a large bowl of room temperature water for a few seconds to soften. Place wrapper on a work surface and top with 4 shrimp halves, 1/4 of the chopped lettuce, 1/2 ounce vermicelli, and 1/4 each of the mint, cilantro, and Thai basil. Fold right and left edges of the wrapper over the ends of the filling and roll up the spring roll. Repeat with remaining wrappers and ingredients. Cut each roll in half and serve with dipping sauce.
Makes 6 spring rolls
Servings: 1 roll, 2 tablespoons dipping sauce