Pasta topped with a thick, meaty sauce satisfies that cold-weather craving for a hearty, warming supper. Spaghetti with a meat and tomato sauce has become a staple throughout North America and Europe.
Some cooks insist on hours of simmering for a full-flavored sauce, but you can make a delicious sauce in less than 20 minutes. The key is to saute the aromatic vegetables used to flavor the sauce in fruity olive oil, and then to saute the meat with them before you add the tomatoes or any liquid.
There are many other quick tricks for enhancing spaghetti sauce. Diced smoked meat or savory or spicy sausages lend a lively taste and richness to the sauce. Mushrooms, either fresh or dried, add good flavor as well. A small amount of dry wine added to the pan just after you have finished sauteing the meat gives a pleasing, sweet-tart flavor that balances the richness of the meat.
Valentina Harris, author of Recipes from an Italian Farmhouse, flavors her ground veal and mushroom sauce with white wine and tomatoes and finishes it with sauteed chicken livers. She simmers Italian sausages in another tomato sauce with onions, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley and basil sauteed together in olive oil.
Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, authors of Pasta Fresca, make sauces from a variety of meats, inspired by regional Italian specialties. For their lamb sauce from Abruzzi, a mountainous area of central Italy bordering the Adriatic, the ground lamb is sauteed in olive oil with garlic, rosemary, parsley and red chili flakes, and then cooked with dry wine and tomatoes. Saffron flavors their Sardinian sausage and tomato sauce, which also contains garlic, basil and chili. They cook four kinds of ground meats together in their ragu misto, or tomato sauce of many meats, flavored with olive oil-sauteed onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, parsley, garlic and basil. Their meatless Lenten pasta sauce is similar, with strips of fried eggplant substituted for the meat.
To quickly thicken the sauce, add just a small amount of liquid at the beginning; you can always add more later if you need to thin the sauce out. When using canned tomatoes, drain the juice and add it only if needed. Even faster, use prepared tomato sauce instead of canned tomatoes. A spoonful or two of tomato paste added at the last minute will quickly thicken the sauce and give it a deeper red hue.
Spaghetti sauces make the satisfying taste of a small amount of meat go a long way, and make sense nutritionally and economically. To keep the saturated fat low, purchase ground meat that's as lean as possible; it may not make juicy hamburgers but is fine in tomato sauce.
Be sure to refrigerate ground meat as soon as possible and cook it within a day. Once cooked, a ground meat sauce can be refrigerated for a day or two or can be frozen.
For an appetizer salad, make one like the "Italian salad" you often get at pizza restaurants. It's basically a green salad enlivened with ingredients that need no preparation - chickpeas, olives, strips of salami or other cold cuts and marinated vegetables such as artichokes and red peppers.
To round out the quick winter menu, you might like to serve a briefly cooked green vegetable, such as fresh or frozen spinach, broccoli, zucchini, green beans or snow peas, alongside the spaghetti or mixed into the sauce.
Serving parve ice cream with a chocolate sauce turns this into an enjoyable weekday menu. Or you might like to follow the pasta with a seasonal dessert like a salad of orange segments and kiwi and banana slices with a splash of Grand Marnier.ITALIAN SALAD WITH ARTICHOKE HEARTS AND CHICKPEAS
Marinated vegetables in jars - artichokes, mushrooms and peppers - are a tasty addition to salads. If they come in an oil-enriched marinade, drain it or use it instead of part of the oil in the dressing.
4 cups bite-size pieces romaine lettuce
1 cup canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
2 slices of salami or other cold cuts, cut in thin strips (optional)
11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 pieces marinated artichokes (quarters)
2 medium tomatoes, cut in wedges
In a shallow serving bowl, toss lettuce with chickpeas, salami, oil, lemon juice and oregano. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve salad topped with artichoke pieces and tomato wedges.
Makes 4 servings.SPAGHETTI WITH MUSHROOM MEAT SAUCE
Meaty mushroom sauce is a fine accompaniment for other forms of pasta too. Shell-shaped and spiral pastas are superb partners for ground meat sauces, because they hold the small morsels of meat and make it easy to savor the pasta with the sauce. This sauce is also good on orzo, couscous, rice, bulgur wheat, polenta or even potatoes.
To save time, mince the garlic in a food processor, then add the onion and mince them together.
Instead of beef, you can prepare the sauce with lean ground lamb, chicken or turkey.
1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 small carrot, diced (optional)
1 celery rib, diced (optional)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
225 gr. (about 1 cup) lean ground beef
A 400-gr. can diced tomatoes, drained
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1⁄2 cup dry white wine, beef or chicken broth, or 1⁄4 cup wine and 1⁄4 cup broth
1 tsp. dried basil
1⁄2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cups sliced mushrooms (about 170 gr.)
450 gr. spaghetti
Heat oil in a heavy medium saute pan. Add onion, carrot and celery and saute over medium-high heat, stirring often, 2 minutes. Add garlic, then beef and saute, crumbling meat with a fork, about 3 minutes or until it changes color.
Add tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, basil, pepper flakes, salt and pepper and bring to a boil, stirring. Add mushrooms. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water 8 to 10 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain and transfer to a large heated bowl. Add sauce and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.ICE CREAM WITH LOW-FAT DARK CHOCOLATE SAUCE
For meatless meals, use light ice cream and use milk to make the sauce; even with low-fat milk, it still tastes good. Reinforcing the taste with cocoa, which is lower in fat than chocolate, helps to keep this recipe diet-friendly.
1⁄2 cup soy milk, rice milk or other parve milk
1⁄3 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chopped
bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1⁄4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1⁄4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 to 8 scoops parve vanilla, strawberry or coffee ice cream
In a small saucepan bring milk just to a boil. Remove from heat and add chocolate chips. Whisk until smooth. Whisk in cocoa and sugar. Bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Serve immediately or refrigerate.
If sauce is cold, reheat briefly in microwave, stirring often, or in a bowl set in a pan of hot water over low heat.
Serve 2 tablespoons sauce per serving; pour it over the ice cream.
Makes 4 servings.Faye Levy
is the author of Sensational Pasta
and 30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes.