Simple Tomato Sauce
This tomato sauce, made quickly and almost without effort, is a good one to have on hand for general cooking, or for a fast pasta or pizza. It can be enlivened with chopped capers, olives, hot pepper, and anchovies added at the end of cooking, or finished with a little good oil and snipped summer herbs. On a pizza, use the sauce cold, or the crust will be compromised. Makes about 2 cups.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 pounds sweet, ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and chopped
- 1 yellow onion, diced fine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
- Bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and basil sprigs
Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly browned about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for half a minute. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and salt, and add the herb sprigs, bundled together with kitchen twine.
Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the flame to low. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes; it will thicken as it cooks. Remove and discard the herb bundle. Taste for salt and adjust. The sauce will keep for 5 or 6 days refrigerated.
Note: For a more refined sauce, pass through a food mill or purée in a blender.
Fusilli con Olive, Piselli, e Pecorino / Fusilli with Olives, Peas, and Pecorino
This dish is the marriage of three wonderful flavors: the salty chunks of olive, the delicate taste of sweet pea, the finish of sharp pecorino. Pecorino is a sheep’s milk cheese, not as creamy and sweet as Parmesan, but saltier, more masculine. This recipe is typical of southern Italy—strong flavors but intriguing in the mouth, especially if you match it to a nice robust wine. It’s a very intense and satisfying dish. Serve it as a whole lunch or as a second or third course at dinner.
- 1 pound fusilli
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 cup fresh peas, steamed until tender
- 1 pound raw spinach, steamed and chopped to equal ½ cup
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 whole garlic cloves
- Red crushed chili peppers, optional
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 5 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
- ½ cup imported black olives, chopped
- ½ cup aged pecorino cheese, grated
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the fusilli until just al dente. Drain and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking. Set aside to cool. In a food processor combine half of the peas and half of the spinach with 5 tablespoons of the olive oil. Puree until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste, and set aside.
In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the garlic with the remaining olive oil. Discard the garlic. Add the chili flakes and sauté. Add the wine and let evaporate. Add the remaining peas and spinach, and the basil, and sauté another minute. Season to taste and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, combine the pasta, sautéed vegetables, olives, three-fourths of the pureed vegetables, and the pecorino cheese, and toss well. Add more vegetable puree if needed. Serve within 3-4 hours at room temperature.
Spaghetti al Tonno con Tanti Pomodorini / Spaghetti with Tomatoes and Tuna
It requires very little work but is nutritious and tasty. Tuna packed in water or olive oil is better for a quick dish than fresh tuna, which you would have to cook and flavor. But if you want to do this in an elegant way, you can grill the tuna and make the sauce with fresh tomatoes. It is a summer dish, made to be eaten at room temperature.
- 2-3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ¼ pounds fresh tomatoes, preferably Romas, peeled, seeded, and diced, or 20 ounces canned Italian tomatoes, drained well (reserve 1/4 cup tomatoes for garnish)
- Two 5 ½ – ounce cans imported Italian tuna in water or olive oil, drained
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 6 large basil leaves, julienned, for garnish
Chef’s Tip: The easiest way to peel tomatoes is to score the stem end with an X and plunge them into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Rinse under cold water until cool enough to touch and the peels will slip right off.
In a skillet over medium-high heat, sauté the garlic in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and tuna and cook 2-3 minutes on medium-high heat.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt, and cook the pasta until just al dente. Drain and add to the sauce. When cool, add the remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with reserved chopped tomatoes and shredded basil.
Couscous con Gamberoni Piccanti / Marinated Shrimp with Couscous
With a lot of the food at Primi, we started with the basics and livened them up. This is a very Mediterranean dish, done in a fusion style: strong, bold flavors with an elegant presentation. Couscous is a popular porridge with its own flavor, but it’s like mashed potatoes—it needs a kick; it’s too quiet on its own. The tomatoes and the couscous are a southern Italian influence, but the reason I love this dish has nothing to do with my childhood. I just bless it because I like the way it tastes, and because you can eat it cold. It’s the perfect starter.
- 16-20 medium uncooked shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for garnish
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tomatoes, diced to equal 1 ½ cups
- 1-2 serrano chilies, finely chopped
- ¼ medium yellow onion, cut in thin slivers
- 1 ½ cups couscous, prepared according to package instructions, with 1 teaspoon butter added
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Curly leaf lettuce, for garnish
Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil. Boil the shrimp for 4-5 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge into ice water or rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking process, and set aside.
In a medium-size bowl, whisk the olive oil and vinegar to combine. Add the tomatoes, chilies, onion, and couscous and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Mound the couscous mixture into a lightly oiled pastry mold or cup, pack firmly, and turn out onto a plate. Arrange a leaf of lettuce alongside and stand the shrimp so that they lean against the molded couscous. Drizzle olive oil on the shrimp.
Fresh Pasta with Cauliflower, Currants, and Pine Nuts
This recipe is a play on a classic southern Italian dish that marries cauliflower with anchovies, pine nuts, and currants. First I flavor a small amount of fruity olive oil with garlic and anchovies, then I boil it with some of the pasta cooking water to make a light sauce that harmonizes the seemingly disparate flavors into a splendid, healthful whole. This dish can also be made with broccoli or some of the more unusual cruciferous hybrids that have recently been appearing in markets, such as broccoflower.
- 8 ounces dried egg linguine, saffron fettuccine, orecchiette, or Gemelli
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1/3 cup currants or raisins
- 1 head cauliflower
- Garlic-Anchovy Oil: 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- One 2-ounce can oil-packed anchovies (about 10), drained, patted dry, and coarsely chopped
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ounce (¼ cup) roasted pine nuts, chopped medium-fine
In a small saucepan, bring the wine to a simmer over moderate heat and add the currants. Cover and set aside to plump for 10 minutes.
Cut the cauliflower into bite-sized florets, core and discard the stems. Steam the cauliflower in a steamer basket over boiling water for 5 to 7 minutes until tender but not mushy. Transfer the cauliflower to a bowl of cold water set in the sink and run cold tap water over the cauliflower until it is completely cool. Drain it well and set aside, or refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.
To make the garlic-anchovy oil, in a large nonstick skillet, combine the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook, covered, over low heat until the garlic is very soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in the anchovies and turn off the heat.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt well, add the pasta, and cook until al dente (tender but still slightly firm to the bite). About 4 minutes before it is done, bring the garlic-anchovy oil to a simmer. Add the cauliflower and sauté, tossing for 2 minutes. Stir in the currants and their liquid and cook until the liquid has evaporated, about 3 minutes.
Using a measuring cup, scoop out about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta. Add 1/4 cup of the cooking water and the cauliflower mixture to the pasta pot and bring to a boil. Return the pasta to the pot along with 1/4 cup of the cheese and toss to coat with the oil mixture. Stir in the parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and the pine nuts, and serve at once, passing the remaining 1/4 cup cheese separately.
You can blanch the cauliflower and prepare the garlic-anchovy oil up to 6 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.
Macaroni and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese can be ordinary when made with processed cheese, or truly sublime made with a more interesting cheese, like a fine Cheddar or Dry (aged) Jack. It is, classically, horrifically fattening: I calculated one standard recipe at almost 800 calories per serving. But it is so beloved and essential a dish to so many people, I set my mind to creating a leaner version—it tied for first place in an informal macaroni and cheese cook-off. None of the judges knew it was a heretical lightened version.
In this adaptation, the caloric, high-fat elements are replaced by two flavorful cheeses and milk thickened with rice flour, which gives it a satisfying, creamy, buttery flavor.
This recipe can be doubled or tripled to make a large batch. Rice flour is available at health food stores and Asian markets. It can be frozen in a tightly sealed plastic container for up to six months.
- ½ teaspoon unsalted butter, softened, or vegetable oil
- Rice Cream: 2 tablespoons white rice flour
- 2 ½ cups whole milk
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 small shallot, peeled and stuck with 1 whole clove
- 1 small imported bay leaf
- Freshly ground white pepper
- 8 ounces elbow macaroni
- 3 ounces, sharp Vermont Cheddar cheese or Monterey Jack, shredded (about 1 cup)
- 1 teaspoon Ancho Chile Essence or sweet Hungarian paprika
- 3 ¼ ounces Dry (aged) Jack, aged Gouda, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (about 3/4 cup)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly grease a 2-quart ovenproof casserole with the butter. Set aside.
To make the rice cream, rinse a small saucepan with cold water. (This will make cleanup easy.) Add the rice flour. With a whisk, gradually beat in enough milk to make a thick paste. Then continue whisking in the remaining milk until well blended. Add the salt, shallot, bay leaf, and white pepper to taste, and bring to a boil over very low heat, whisking frequently. Simmer for 10 minutes, or until the mixture has the consistency of thick cream. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl and set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt well. Add the macaroni and cook until it is almost tender but still quite firm to the bite (it will continue cooking in the oven). Drain well and return to the pot. Stir in the rice cream, Cheddar cheese, chile essence, and all but 2 tablespoons of the Dry Jack cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Pour the macaroni into the casserole. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons Dry Jack. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Serve at once.
You can make the Rice Cream up to 2 days ahead; cover and refrigerate. You can assemble the casserole up to 2 hours ahead; cover and leave at room temperature.
Penne con Ricotta e Cannella / Penne with Cinnamon Ricotta
This dish is popular in Carnia, where ricotta is so loved, and down through Pordenone and into the Veneto. It introduces an imported spice to a local flavor. In the past, this sauce might have flavored polenta, and it still can, but nowadays you are likely to find it blended with pasta. In Friuli, the ricotta is naturally sweet, so added sugar is unnecessary. If you are using a bland cheese, consider adding at most just a pinch of sugar. The cinnamon should be a subtle note rather than a dominant flavor. This is a rich dish, and a small portion can go a long way.
- Pinch salt
- 1 pound / 450 g penne
- 12 ounces / 335 g fresh ricotta
- 2 teaspoons / 10 g freshly ground cinnamon (adjust to taste)
- ½ teaspoon / 2.5 g sugar (optional)
Set a large pot of cold water to boil. When it reaches a full boil, add a pinch of salt. When the water returns to a boil, add the penne and cook until al dente, according to the package instructions. One minute before the penne are supposed to be done, taste one and decide for yourself how much more cooking you need.
While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Put the cheese into a large bowl (big enough to contain the hot pasta). Stir the cheese with a wooden or plastic spoon for a minute to make it more creamy. Add the cinnamon and stir in well. Taste for sweetness and, if you wish, stingily add a little sugar and cinnamon. Add 1 tablespoon/ 15 ml hot water from the pasta pot and stir it into the cheese to make it creamier. You might wish the sauce to be even creamier, in which case you should then stir in another tablespoon/ 15 ml hot water.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain in a colander but leave a little hot water clinging to the penne. Transfer to the ricotta sauce, toss well, and serve immediately.
Savory Herb Meatballs With Spaghetti
These tender, delicate beef dumplings have no relation to the overcooked, dry, flavorless meatballs that some of us remember from grade school cafeteria lunches. The bread crumbs and herbs give them their texture and flavor. The meatballs can be served with rice instead of pasta, or served by themselves as a first course with a little fresh tomato sauce. Sometimes we make tiny meatballs and poach them in a vegetable soup or broth.
- ½ cup milk
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
- ¼ cup soft bread crumbs
- 1 medium red onion, sliced thin
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Olive oil
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
- 1 pound freshly ground beef sirloin
- 2 cups Simple Tomato Sauce
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¼ teaspoon hot pepper flakes
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish
- ½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
- 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, plus 2 tablespoons more for sauce
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Black pepper
Put the milk and bread crumbs in a small bowl and mix with a fork. When the bread has softened, squeeze out most of the milk with your hands. Discard the milk. Sauté the onion in a little olive oil without letting it color. Season with a light pinch of salt and set aside to cool.
Combine in a medium-size bowl the beef, bread crumbs, onion, egg, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 2 tablespoons parsley, the thyme, cayenne, black pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Work the mixture gently and thoroughly with your hands until it has an even consistency. With wet hands, shape the mixture into walnut-size balls. This can be done a few hours ahead. Store the meatballs in the refrigerator in one layer, tightly wrapped, until you are ready to cook them. The meatballs can be cooked in the time it takes to boil the spaghetti.
Heat a skillet large enough to hold all the meatballs in one uncrowded layer. Add the red onion with enough olive oil to coat it lightly and cook over medium heat. When the onion begins to sizzle, add the meatballs, shaking the pan to keep them from sticking. Using tongs or a wooden spoon, gently turn and toss the onions and meatballs so they brown lightly. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds, taking care that it doesn’t color. Add the tomato sauce, hot pepper flakes, oregano, and the remaining 2 tablespoons parsley. Season with salt to taste. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring the meatballs to coat them with sauce. Test for doneness by cutting one meatball in half with a paring knife. Keep warm.
A rule of thumb for gauging how much pasta to cook — one that actually uses the thumb — is to make a ring about the size of a dime with your thumb and forefinger. A dime-size bundle of pasta is one portion. Dry spaghetti will take 7 to 10 minutes to cook. Boil the pasta in a large quantity of salted water. Drain the spaghetti and turn into a deep warmed platter or pasta bowl. Pour the meatballs and sauce over the pasta. Serve with more Parmesan cheese.
Pasta in the Style of Amatrice / Pasta All’Amatriciana (Matriciana)
A well-known recipe, this one, a classic, is fortunately still being served in good Italian restaurants in the United States. The town of Amatrice borders on the region of Lazio, of which Rome is the capital. Nowadays, though, because this town is part of the Lazio jurisdiction, its most famous recipe is often referred to as being part of the Roman cuisine. So be it.
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 1 medium-size onion, chopped
- A few flakes diavoletto (dried Italian hot red pepper)
- 1/4 pound pancetta or prosciutto, in 1 slice, diced
- 1 pound penne or ziti
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 pound fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped; or one 16-ounce can peeled tomatoes, with their juice
- Freshly grated pecorino romano cheese or a combination of pecorino and parmesan
In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until it is soft and translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the pancetta, or prosciutto, and cook briefly, stirring, until it releases its flavor, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the wine and let evaporate. Stir in the tomato paste, tomatoes, pepper, and diavoletto, if used. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer about 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling, salted water according to the package directions. Drain and dress with the sauce. Serve with the grated cheese separately.
Spaghetti with Lemony Seared Scallops
Here is a stylish pasta that requires only minutes to make. I suggest using an inexpensive extra-virgin oil for searing the scallops, then topping the pasta with a very good mild extra-virgin oil. This creation was inspired by chef Joe Simone of Boston.
- 3/4 to 1 pound bay scallops or sea scallops
- ½ cup white flour, preferably Wondra
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil for searing scallops
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3/4 pound spaghetti
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons highest quality mild extra-virgin or lemon-flavored olive oil for drizzling
Put a large pot of salted water on a stove and bring to boil. Meanwhile, if using bay scallops, leave whole; if using sea scallops, cut into quarters. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the salt and pepper. Dust the scallops with the seasoned flour, then tap off the excess.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil and warm for 30 seconds. Add the scallops and sear, turning as necessary, for not more than 1 to 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice to the pan and stir. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl. Add the warm scallops and the pasta water and toss well. Sprinkle the parsley and lemon zest on top, and drizzle with the 2 tablespoons mild extra-virgin oil or lemon-flavored oil. Serve at once.