Pasta with tomato sauce and cheese is one of the first dishes that many of us cook and remains a staple on the menus of many households, appealing to children as well as adults. A basic of Italian cooking, this trio has been adopted throughout the Western world. At a recent dinner at an American restaurant, I enjoyed a particularly delicious rendition of this classic. The dish was described as pasta with four cheeses and marinara sauce. My plate of penne (slim pasta tubes) arrived in an orange-hued, oregano-scented sauce of tomatoes and three cheeses: mozzarella, Parmesan and Romano. It was strewn with aromatic strips of fresh basil and topped with small dollops of ricotta cheese. What makes the difference between a boring plate of spaghetti with red sauce and cheese and a tempting creation is how you prepare each of the three elements - the sauce, the pasta and the cheese - and how you combine them come serving time. THE SAUCE: Marinara sauce, according to Michele Scicolone, author of 1,000 Italian Recipes, is a quick-cooking tomato sauce that gains its characteristic flavor from garlic. Since its name comes from a word meaning "of the sea," some say it should have anchovies. Noted Italian culinary expert Giuliano Bugialli, author of Bugialli on Pasta, disagrees. "Fundamentally, alla marinara simply means to add tomatoes to the basic olive oil and garlic, aglio e olio." he says. "This must have originated sometime in the 19th century, when ripe tomatoes came to play a dominant role in Neapolitan cooking before spreading north. In Italy, ...alla marinara still means only tomatoes, oil and garlic. The phase refers to... fishermen and... means 'made in a quick and simple way,' with just the few ingredients easily available." THE CHEESE: Parmesan and Romano are hard salty cheeses that basically season the pasta. At home, one of them is enough; it's not necessary to add both as they have a similar effect. Mozzarella blends into the sauce and gives it a rich, creamy texture, but you can substitute other semi-soft yellow cheeses. THE PASTA: Just about any shape of pasta matches up with tomatoes and cheese. In addition to penne, which comes either smooth or ridged, short pastas like shells and spirals are also good choices because they are simpler to mix with the sauce than spaghetti and are easier to eat. Be sure to cook the pasta uncovered in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water over high heat and to remove it as soon as it is "al dente," or tender, while retaining a bit of firmness. If it's cooked until too soft, it loses its flavor and tastes waterlogged. When you drain the pasta, save a little of the cooking water to dilute the sauce in case it gets too thick. ASSEMBLING THE DISH: Chefs use a special technique for saucing pasta that is worth emulating. Instead of pouring sauce over a bowl of pasta, they add the just-cooked pasta to the heated sauce in a shallow pan and continue heating them together for a few minutes. Doing this encourages the pasta to absorb flavor and causes it to become coated with the sauce. How much sauce to add is a question of taste. You don't want dry pasta, but it should not be drenched in sauce. There should be just the right amount to moisten the pasta well. You can always serve extra sauce separately. Cheeses are best added in very small pieces to the hot, sauced pasta off the heat. This is especially true of stretched cheeses such as mozzarella. If overheated, mozzarella becomes very stringy; but if the dish of pasta is not served hot enough, the mozzarella has an unpleasant gluey texture (think of cold leftover pizza). Fresh herbs such as basil, parsley and fresh coriander best keep their aroma and flavor if added off the heat at the last moment. Another good last-minute touch is a sprinkling of extra virgin olive oil, which especially useful if your pasta dish is not rich in cheese. PENNE WITH TWO CHEESES, TOMATOES AND BASIL Sometimes called pasta "alla sorrentina," for the lovely town of Sorrento at one end of the spectacular Amalfi drive in southwestern Italy, this dish is flavored with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. I also like it with kashkaval cheese instead of the Parmesan. To make pasta with three cheeses, spoon small dollops of room-temperature ricotta cheese on sauced pasta at serving time. Makes four main-course servings
4 to 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced, or 1 small onion, chopped (about 2â„3 cup)
700 to 900 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
450 gr. penne
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves
3â„4 to 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese or 11â„4 cups grated kashkaval
85 gr. mozzarella cheese, cut in 6-mm. cubes (3â„4 cup cubes), or coarsely grated
Heat 3 or 4 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and saute over medium heat for 15 seconds; if using onion, saute about 5 minutes or until just beginning to brown.
Add tomatoes and salt and cook over medium-high heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until tomatoes are tender (if using fresh) and sauce is thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Remove about 1â„3 of the sauce and keep warm. Stir in 2 tablespoons basil.
Add pasta to a large pot of boiling salted water. Cook uncovered over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 or 9 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well.
Add pasta to the skillet of warm sauce and heat over medium-high heat, stirring gently, until pasta is coated with sauce. If more sauce is needed to moisten pasta, add some or all of the sauce you have removed.
Off heat, add 2 tablespoons basil and grated kashkaval or Parmesan and mix well. Add mozzarella cubes and continue tossing until it just starts to melt. Taste, adjust seasoning and transfer to a heated shallow serving bowl.
Sprinkle with remaining oil and freshly ground pepper and toss gently. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon basil and serve.
NOODLES WITH SPICY FRESH TOMATO SAUCE, FETA CHEESE, AND GREEN VEGETABLES
Quick, spicy Mexican-style sauces like this one, which requires no cooking, are delicious with pasta and with salty cheeses like feta and Bulgarian cheese. These robust flavors are a good match for hearty pastas such as whole-grain noodles. To make it into a nutritious entree, I cook vegetables along with the pasta.
Makes 3 to 4 servings as a light main course
450 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded,
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh hot pepper, seeded, ribs removed, minced, or cayenne or hot red pepper to taste
2 to 3 Tbsp. dried oregano
Salt to taste
225 gr. whole-wheat noodles, spinach noodles or spiral pasta
110 gr. small broccoli florets or thick-sliced mushrooms
110 gr. green beans, broken in 2 or 3 pieces
110 gr. zucchini or white squash (kishuim)
3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 green onion, chopped
85 to 110 gr. feta or Bulgarian cheese, crumbled (3â„4 to 1 cup)
FOR THE SAUCE: Combine tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper, oregano and salt in a small bowl and stir. Let stand about 30 minutes at room temperature. You can also refrigerate it for 3 or 4 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Add pasta, broccoli (but not mushrooms) and green beans to a large pot of boiling salted water. Cook uncovered over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Add zucchini (and mushrooms, if using) and cook over high heat for 4 more minutes or until pasta is tender but firm to the bite.
Meanwhile, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet, add green onion and remove from heat. Drain pasta and vegetables well and add to skillet. Heat mixture over medium-high heat, tossing often, until lightly coated with oil. Transfer to a large heated serving bowl.
Add remaining oil and tomato sauce and toss well.
Reserve 2 to 3 tablespoons feta cheese for garnish. Add remaining cheese to pasta and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Top with reserved feta. Serve hot or warm.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.