19 December 2011

Eats: Christmas pasta

When I was a teenager, I was an active member of my church’s youth group. One December, we assembled baskets of toiletries and other necessities for a local shelter as a sort of seasonal, charitable, youth-group-y activity. As we put together the baskets, the mother of one of the kids in our group prepared dinner for us in the church kitchen. And as you might expect from the mother in a family of chefs, it was amazing.

My mother asked Mrs. Betty for her recipe, which we called “Mrs. Betty’s Christmas Basket Pasta” in our house. Since that’s a long mouthful of a name, it’s gotten shortened over the years. Nowadays in our household, it’s called “Christmas pasta”.

I admit that there’s nothing intrinsically “Christmas” about it, other than I first ate it at a Christmas activity. Honestly, we eat it year-round in our house. But it’s grown to have a special connotation, even when I make it in the middle of summer: it reminds me of a time in which we are especially called to do good things for one another.

Mrs. Betty understood that this is a perfect dish to serve a large group – you can “stretch” the sauce to your needs, and the flavors are tasty enough for grownups while it’s spaghetti-ish enough for children. In other words, if you have a large group of people crashing your home this Christmas holiday? This, this is what you can serve them.

Start by browning a pound of Italian sausage on the stovetop, which I neglected to photograph because... you know how to brown sausage, right? I prefer buying the “mild” instead of “hot” and adding red pepper to my taste. It’s easy to add spice, hard to take it away. Once you’ve browned the sausage, drain the grease and set the sausage aside. Then, deglaze the pan with sherry or red wine, heated it until it’s barely simmering (you can see a few bubbles in a hot spot below):

“Deglazing” means that you add enough alcohol to cover the bottom of the pan and scrape up all the brown bits the cooked meat left behind. I’m not giving you an amount to use because Mrs. Betty didn’t give us any instructions on that – use more if you like the flavor, less if you don’t. Sherry tends to make the final dish a little sweeter, while red wine makes the sauce bolder. The difference is subtle, though, so use whichever you have on hand!

While that’s barely simmering, add in some minced garlic and onion “to taste”. For us, I use a heaping tablespoon of pre-minced garlic (which equals a few cloves) and a tablespoon or so of these guys:

I almost never use fresh onion, as I hate chopping onions, and Mr. P and I don’t really like onion enough to keep it on hand. Feel free to use real onion or garlic if you prefer!

After the garlic and onions cook in the wine for a few minutes, add in a can of diced tomatoes (15 oz), a can of tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes (15 oz), and the Italian sausage. Those amounts in parenthesis are what I typically use for a pound of sausage, but sometimes I have a smaller can of tomato sauce or a jumbo can of diced tomatoes that I want to use up. It’s totally flexible! Use what you have, and if you’re feeding a huge crowd, you can add more tomatoes as needed.

Speaking of large amounts, notice that I had to switch saucepans in between photos. I wasn’t thinking when I grabbed a pan to brown the sausage, so I started in a pan that was too small. Start off in a large saucepan if you can!

One last step before the simmering: seasoning! I add a tablespoon or so of Italian seasoning blend, a few extra shakes of basil (green basil + red tomatoes = Christmas colors, eh?), and plenty of salt and pepper to taste. I also add in red pepper flakes if the sausage seems too mild, and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes have too much of an acidic bite (not usually a problem with canned tomatoes, but fresh tomatoes sometimes taste too acidic for me).

Because the sausage is all cooked, you really can season “to taste”. I like to add seasonings, let it simmer a bit, and then give it a taste and see if it needs anything. Then repeat!

Let the sauce simmer at low heat, uncovered, for as long as you possibly can – at least twenty minutes, but more is better. Usually I get the sauce simmering before I even bother to start heating water to boil the pasta. It takes forever and fifty years to get water at a rolling boil on our stovetop, so that gives the sauce time to cook down.

Speaking of the pasta, you can use whatever you like, but I use the classic choice of Mrs. Betty: penne noodles. For the amounts of sauce ingredients above, I use a pound of pasta. Be sure to boil in salted water for extra Italiano!

Finally, drain the pasta and toss it with olive oil. Then stir it all together:

Who can resist that?! Everyone loves a tasty pasta with meat sauce! So much better than jarred marinara, and not much harder to make.

Honestly, Mrs. Betty’s Christmas Basket Pasta is the first dish that demonstrated how easy it is to “throw together” a dish for a large group. You don’t need measurements, you don’t need a set list of ingredients – you just add basic ingredients until it’s tasty. As my mother was an absolute recipe-follower, this was a totally novel idea to me, but I’ve embraced it ever since. Especially with pasta. Obvs.

Mrs. Betty tragically passed away earlier this year. Unfortunately, I never really had the chance to tell her how she introduced me to a new way to cook... and that I still make her Christmas Basket pasta to this day. Since I can’t do that, I’ll share it with you.

Mrs. Betty’s Christmas Basket Pasta
[all amounts estimated and flexible]
1 lb. Italian sausage
1/3 cup red wine or sherry
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. dried onion
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 Tbsp. Italian seasoning
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. salt (to taste)
1 tsp. pepper (to taste)
1/2 tsp. red pepper (to taste)
1 lb. penne noodles
1 Tbsp. olive oil

Cook sausage, then drain and set aside. In the same pan, add wine to deglaze the pan and simmer with garlic and onions. Add tomatoes and remainder of seasoning. Simmer uncovered for 25-30 minutes over low heat while pasta is boiling. Toss drained pasta in olive oil, then stir into sauce to serve.

Now perhaps you can share it with your family, too. Enjoy!


Tina said...

I'm so pleased you paid homage to Mrs. Betty here. It is a fantastically delicious dish - I could just drink the juices and be satiated... it is that good! I remember taking down her sketchy/self-deprecating directions thinking no way it would turn out as good for me - one time I was glad to be wrong...
I have another memory connected to this dish - the night you had us over for dinner at the house to tell us of your decision to go to Vanderbilt rather than Duke or Wash U - it was especially good that night!!!