Favorite Pasta

Everyone seems to have a favorite food.  We’re a community who loves our food and labels it accordingly.  Oh, this is my favorite chocolate.  Try my favorite cheesecake.  Or, you’ll love my favorite bean soup.  And, then, there’s pasta.  People love pasta and are passionate about their favorites.  Over the last several years, it seems many of our friends and guests have dubbed this dish as their favorite pasta.  When we talk about what to serve for dinner, some will say to us, “Will you make that pasta?”  It’s the favorite pasta with no name.  We’ve even gotten to the point where we call it “Favorite Pasta” rather than by its much more formal name:  Penne with Creamy Tomato Vodka Sauce.

Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce

When I think about it, I think this recipe is part of the reason that we started the blog.  After serving it to various groups that came here to visit, I had so many requests for the recipe, I started thinking that maybe there was an easier way to share recipes than by e-mail.  I guess it was that whole necessity and mother of invention thing.  A little ironic, then, that the concept of the blog may have started with this recipe but it’s taken me a year and half to get it on here and shared with all of you.

The red pepper flakes add a nice, unexpected flavor.  As our friend Brian says, “It’s zippy.”  In a good way.  And this comes from a self-described spice wimp.  But if you want a little less zip, just cut down on how much of the red pepper flakes you use.

Pasta Ingredients

Simple ingredients that you may already have on hand.

Cooking the Vodka Sauce

After the meat has browned, add the tomatoes, vodka and spices and simmer to let the juices cook down.

Sauce After Adding Whipping Cream

Add the cream and simmer.

Adding Pasta to the Sauce

Cook the pasta in a separate pot and then add to the sauce and toss to coat with the saucy goodness.

This recipe is simple but delicious.  It’s a recipe that can be prepared after work for a weekday dinner party.  It comes together easily and yet looks and tastes like you made a big fuss.  And, in some ways, don’t we want our dinner guests to feel like we fussed a bit, just for them?

Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce

Happy Entertaining!

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A Recipe Straight from Tuscany

Sunflowers in ItalyMost people agree, there is a lot to love about Italy.  People who have been there talk about the history.  The culture.  The scenery.  But mostly they talk about the food.  And rightfully so.  The food in Italy is worth talking about.

We recently spent a couple of weeks in Italy with friends.  At one point, there were 11 of us together in a rented villa in Tuscany.  One day, we had chefs come to our kitchen and give us a class on Italian cooking.  It was an evening to remember.

We had two chefs, Christiano and Stefano.  One spoke very little English so the other did most of the talking.  In his very thick Italian accent, we learned that they are fanatical about their ingredients, even making their own olive oil (which they make after they “catch” the olives).  Their point was, “Everything you put in the saucepan is what you eat later.”  Got it.  Be picky about the ingredients.  Our instruction, and subsequent meal, included homemade pasta with a ragu meat sauce, pork tenderloin and tiramisu.  All of it was ridiculously delicious.

There are many aspects of that trip that I think about on an almost daily basis, and that meal is at the top of the list.  A great group of friends gathered together, making and then sharing a meal.  It was one of those “priceless” experiences.  While we can’t recreate everything about that experience back home (for the life of me I can’t figure out how to get church bells to ring every hour), there are aspects that absolutely can be part of a dinner party at home.  For starters, I came back determined to recreate the meal.  Today, I’m sharing with you my version of the Tagliatelle al Ragu di Carne (Typical Tuscan meat sauce).

Our Group

First, the sauce.  Here, in the United States, we’ve come to associate “Ragu” with an inexpensive bottled spaghetti sauce, when in Italy it simply means “meat sauce.”  Our chefs used 3 different meats for the sauce:  veal, pork and chicken parts.  The chicken parts actually became sort of joke because it wasn’t completely clear at first what parts they were using.  Initially we thought they were using chicken livers, but after many attempts at translating, we were able to determine that it was hearts and gizzards.  I think you’ll recall that I’m all about simple entertaining, and collecting/cooking/dicing chicken parts (regardless of what part it is) falls outside of my tolerance for simple, so I opted not to include it in this recipe.  We tried to find ground veal to no avail (although we were told by the butcher at Safeway that we can order it), so I substituted good, lean, organic ground beef and then used ground pork as well.  As a side note, the first time I attempted this recipe I used ground turkey, as I often do in sauces, and found it to be a little bland.  The beef/pork combination worked well and produced a rich, flavorful sauce similar to the original Italian version.  I used canned tomato sauce that seemed to be similar to the ones they used in class.

Pot full of goodness

It was also a little unclear how much of what spices they used.  They used an “aromatic mix” that they had made before arriving at the villa.  I know their mix included rosemary and sage, so that’s what I used.  They told us to add the salt early in the cooking process for flavoring, but to save the other spices until the end so that the aromas don’t get cooked out of them.  They said if you add the things like the rosemary and sage too early, you just end up with “little green pisses” (said in a very thick Italian voice) by the end.  I thought this was so endearingly charming and Italian, I repeated it several times as I was making our sauce.

Our Chef

Our Chef

Homemade Pasta

Homemade Pasta

Finally, the pasta.  During our class, we made the pasta from scratch.  Honestly, during a cooking class in Italy, I would’ve been a little disappointed if they had shown up with packaged pasta. While it was definitely fun and actually sort of kinda easy, it’s honestly more work than I’m willing to do for dinner at home.  Again, falls outside my tolerance for simple.  (Coincidentally, a good friend of mine today posted pictures of her at home making pasta.  I curtsy to her and her moxie).  The pasta we made was “pici” (pronounced like “Pee Chee,” for any of you old enough to remember that orange folder we used to carry in school.)  We weren’t able to find pici locally (but have since found it online), so we substituted a fresh, fettuccine pasta that was similar to pici in size.  The point is that with this sauce, you want to use a substantial pasta.

Pasta alternative - from the grocer

Pasta – store-bought alternative

Pasta - not homemade

Pasta – not homemade

Tagliatelle al Ragu di Carne

Pasta in our Tuscan villa

The result?  A really tasty pasta that’s fairly easy to make and is true to the authentic dish we made in Tuscany.  The next day, the Bartender declared it the “best leftovers he’s ever eaten,” which is noteworthy as well.  We’ll definitely be making this one again.

Happy Entertaining!

Pasta with Meat Sauce

Our version at home

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Mac and Cheese for Grown-Ups

This is not your kids’ mac and cheese.  This is an I’m-all-grown-up, serve-me-with-wine, call-me-pasta-not-macaroni kind of dish.  This is a perfect example of how food doesn’t have to be fussy or complicated to be good.  Serve it to guests without apology.

Three Grated Cheeses

Check out our recipe, and follow the easy steps below to make the best mac and cheese:

Making the Roux

Combine flour and butter

Roux with Flour and Butter

The roux starts to get clumpy

Roux After Adding Milk

Whisk while adding milk

Roux is now Cream Sauce

Roux is now a cream sauce

Adding Spices and Truffle Oil

Add the spices and truffle oil

Adding the Cheese

Add the cheese & let it melt

Happy Entertaining!

Macaroni and Cheese

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Top 10 reasons to love Risotto

1.  Rice and cheese.  Okay, technically that’s two reasons, but it’s because this dish is a combination of rice and cheese that makes it so ridiculously good.  For those of us that like dishes that combine the two perfect foods of starch and cheese, this is a nice alternative to macaroni and cheese.

2.  This risotto also has butter and peas.  Maybe not exactly fat free, but then again, it’s not supposed to be, which is another reason to love it.

3.  It’s made with wine.  Which means you need to open a bottle of wine.  Which means you stand there, making the risotto, while sipping wine.  It’s the kind of cooking one should do while drinking a glass of wine.  Or two.  What’s not to love.

4.  You can’t rush the process.  And in this world of microwaves and the internet, it’s nice to have something that forces us to slow down, just a little, and enjoy the process.  I love standing over my stove, sipping wine, and creating risotto.  And the results are so worth it.  But with that said, …

5.  You can walk in the door and be serving risotto an hour later.

6.  You can have everything on hand and make it without much planning or forethought.  A lot of the ingredients are non-perishable and others have a long shelf life, so without turning into a paranoid stockpiler, you may already have frozen peas in the freezer, a bottle of wine anywhere, and parmesan cheese in the refrigerator, which means you can make this risotto whenever the urge hits.

7.  It plays well with others.  This goes well with fish, poultry, beef, pork or lamb.  It can be the Boy Wonder side kick to any Batman main dish you serve.

8.  There are many variations and easy substitutes.  Don’t have peas?  You can use asparagus.  Like mushrooms?  Use those.  Leftover veggies?  Toss them in.  The pot of rice can become your own blank canvas if you feel the need to be creative.

9.  My copper risotto pan.  It’s the only copper pan I own, but I do love it.  You can use any large frying pan or saucepan with high edges.

10.  It seems difficult to make and it’s so not.  It seems like something a “chef” would make but it’s easy enough for someone who is just a cook, like me.  Besides the time that’s involved, it’s really very simple but with results that impress.

So, go ahead, make some risotto today and enjoy all the reasons it will make you happy.

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