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When I travel, my favorite souvenir is a cookbook to recall and recreate the tastes I enjoyed in the area I visited.
During a six-week trip we took around Italy in the early 1980s, I eagerly sought out cookbooks in each region. Soon our camping car was laden with books. At first, my knowledge of Italian was too rudimentary for me to follow the elaborate recipes but I quickly learned to read the simple ones. These basic Italian culinary formulas proved to be invaluable for those days when there wasn't much time to devote to meal preparation.
I especially loved the creative ways that the Italians used pantry foods to come up with tasty dishes. One of these ingredients was sausages. I had always associated sausages more with German than Italian cuisine, but I found the Italians very talented in improvising quick suppers based on savory sausage sauces-served over pasta, of course.
I never was fond of sitting down to a full-size portion of sausage, but these Italian recipes became my favorite ways to make use of these savory meats, both the dry salame type and the thinner fresh sausages.
When used in sauces, a small amount of these intensely flavored meats can season a large bowlful of spaghetti. This is an ideal way to enjoy the meat's rich flavor without eating much of it. No wonder it has long been a favorite not only in Italy, but in North America as well.
Giliola Pedrazzoli, the author of Sughi & Salse (gravies and sauces in Italian) makes a simple salame sauce with only four other ingredients: onion sauteed in olive oil, dry white wine and chopped canned tomatoes. She recommends this fast, simple sauce for semolina pasta rather than for delicate egg noodles. Other cooks make similar sauces without wine and flavor it with fresh basil.
To make a heartier sausage ragout designed for short pasta shapes, Pedrazzoli sautes onion, celery and carrot, then adds diced sausage and simmers it with dry red wine, bay leaves, tomato paste and chicken broth. She finds spiral-shaped fusilli is great with a sausage and sweet pepper sauce, made of sauteed sausage pieces and onion simmered with dry white wine, yellow pepper strips and chopped canned tomatoes.
Every time I leaf through the pages of a book I bought in Naples La Cucina Della Campania by Anna and Piero Serra (in Italian) I enjoy the wealth of easy sauces for pasta, made with just about any ingredient you might have.
Their macaroni frittata served me well when I was at a relative's house and we had to fix supper without having a chance to go out and shop. First you toss cooked pasta with an onion sauteed in olive oil and pureed canned tomatoes. Next you add chopped salame, beaten eggs and pepper and cook the medley as a flat omelet.
To make one of the simplest sauces possible, the Serras advise you to simmer sliced sausage in a little water until the pan is dry, then let the sausage brown in its own fat, add a little white wine and cook it until it evaporates. You toss the mixture with perciatelli (long macaroni) and that's it. The result is an entree that's surprisingly tasty for so little trouble.
As much as I like these sauces, I prefer sausage-based pasta sauces that include a generous amount of vegetables; the sausage does wonders to enhance their taste. I learned several from Evan Kleiman, chef of Angeli Caffe in Los Angles and author (with Viana La Place) of Cucina Rustica.
They moisten orecchiette - small ear-shaped pasta - with a richly flavored sauce of broccoli stewed with sauteed garlic and crumbled sausage. For another pasta sauce, they cook fresh fennel slices with sausage, garlic, basil, oregano, red wine and chicken broth, and finish the sauce with onion sauteed in olive oil. Their savory winter sauce for fresh fettuccine calls for cooking sausage with dried porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, white wine and rosemary.
When you need to come up with a meal in short order, it's good to remember that salame or kabanoss or the package of beef or turkey frankfurters that's sitting in the back of the refrigerator. Cook a few slices of the meat with whatever vegetables you have: eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower or frozen mixed vegetables and add a little onion or garlic sauteed in extra virgin olive oil. Moisten the medley with dry wine, tomato sauce or both and add herbs if you want. Serve this hearty sauce over spaghetti or your favorite pasta, and your family will have a supper that's satisfying and sure to please.
Lazy-Day Pasta with Smoked Sausage, Tomato Sauce and Corn
For a quick and delicious lunch or supper made with ingredients likely to be in the kitchen, try this hearty dish of pasta shells with slices of sausage, flavored with a quick tomato sauce and roasted peppers from a jar.
4 to 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
An 800 gram can tomatoes, drained
4 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
175 to 225 grams smoked sausage or beef or turkey frankfurters
1 cup thin strips of roasted sweet red pepper from a jar, patted dry
450 grams small pasta shells
3 cups frozen corn kernels
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Stir in garlic, then tomatoes, thyme, salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat, crushing tomatoes and stirring often, until thick, about 15 minutes.
In a saucepan bring to a simmer enough water to cover sausage. Add sausage and simmer 10 minutes. Remove, discard skin, cut in 6-mm (1â„4-inch) slices and halve each slice. Reheat tomato sauce over low heat, add sausage and keep warm over low heat.
Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or until nearly tender. Add corn and cook about 2 minutes or until pasta is tender but still firm to the bite.
Drain pasta and corn together. Transfer to a heated serving bowl, add remaining olive oil and peppers and toss. Add sausage slices in tomato sauce and toss. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta and of Feast from the Mideast.