Passion for pasta

You can prepare numerous dishes that are easy, delicious and satisfying.

Pasta 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Pasta 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
In classic Italian menus, pasta has a place of honor as a separate course. At the family dinners of Lisa Caponigri, author of Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner?, meals were served in the Italian tradition: “an antipasto (usually a crostini, [toast with a savory topping] to pass at the table), a primo (first course: this is almost always a pasta...), a secondo (call it the main course) served with a single contorno (side dish), and finally, dessert.”
One reason to serve pasta before the main course has been frugality. When Caponigri cooked with her grandmother, she heard stories of the Sicilian family’s hard life. Their economical dishes like spaghetti with anchovies and bread crumbs were “delicious, satisfying and easy to prepare.”
In Caponigri’s book of menus for a year of Sunday dinners, hearty pasta dishes like lasagne baked with meat ragu are followed by a main course of chicken or meat.
Lighter pasta dishes with vegetable- or fish-based sauces are often served before a fish entree. The Sicilian spaghetti with anchovy sauce is preceded by red pepper aioli on toast. Following the spaghetti, Caponigri serves sole roll-ups made of sole fillets baked with garlic and parsley and moistened with brown butter heated with green onions, lemon zest and red pepper flakes. Next come artichokes with a garlic parsley filling, and a rumflavored orange cake for dessert.
For a light summer menu, Caponigri prepares pasta Ligurian style, with pesto, green beans and potatoes. It is followed by chicken milanese, which resembles schnitzel, and a zucchini side dish. Her pasta with mushroom sauce is followed by roasted meat with fennel, and for dessert, cherries in Chianti.
PASTA HAS always been a favorite food of Monique Deschaine, and so she created the company Al Dente Pasta. From Italian pasta expert Marcella Hazan she learned “the importance of rolling out the dough, just like an Italian grandmother, in order to achieve a ‘tender, but firm’ homemade taste and texture.”
To prepare three-minute pasta, Deschaine combines cooked pasta with Greek feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, olive oil and walnuts. When she learned that turmeric enhances memory, she created a dish called “memorable pasta,” a combination of turmeric-roasted cauliflower, red onion and carrots with whole wheat pasta and favorite Italian flavors – Parmesan, olive oil, Italian (flat-leaf) parsley and a garnish of toasted pine nuts.
Like many Italian chefs, both Caponigri and Deschaine heat the just-cooked pasta in the sauce together with a little of the pasta’s cooking liquid. This is a useful technique for preventing dry pasta dishes, and is better from a nutritional standpoint than adding extra oil or butter.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.
This recipe, from my book Sensational Pasta, combines pasta and vegetables with favorite Mediterranean ingredients – olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and basil. If you like, add black olives and capers along with or instead of the cheese. You can make it with other long pasta shapes, such as linguine, vermicelli or spaghetti.
Makes 4 servings as a first course or side dish.
225 gr. (8 ounces) small eggplants 2 sweet green or red peppers, or of each 5 to 7 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 large garlic cloves, minced
350 gr. (12 ounces) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped (see Note below); or 11⁄4 cups drained chopped canned tomatoes 225 gr. (8 ounces) spaghettini 1⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese 1⁄4 cup thin strips of fresh basil leaves Bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for serving)
Cut eggplants in crosswise slices about 6 mm. (1⁄4 inch) thick. Cut peppers in strips.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium- high heat. Add eggplant, quickly sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute about 2 minutes per side or until tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer to a plate. Add 2 tablespoons oil to skillet and heat over medium heat. Add peppers and saute about 10 minutes or until tender. Transfer to a plate. Cut eggplant slices in half if they are large. Cover eggplant and peppers and keep warm.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and heat over medium- low heat. Add garlic and saute for 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook over high heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until soft and thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm over low heat.
Cook spaghettini uncovered in a large pot of salted boiling water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with a fork, about 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well, reserving 1⁄2 cup of the cooking liquid.
Add pasta to skillet of tomato sauce and heat gently, adding 2 or 3 tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid. Reserve a few eggplant slices, pepper strips and basil strips for garnish. Add remaining eggplant and peppers to pasta and toss. If pasta is too dry, add more of the cooking liquid or add 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add Parmesan and basil and toss again.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with reserved eggplant slices, pepper strips and basil strips. Serve with Parmesan.
Note: To peel tomatoes, cut green cores from tomatoes, turn each tomato over and, with point of paring knife, slit skin on bottom of tomato in an X-shape.
Put tomatoes in a saucepan of enough boiling water to cover them generously. Boil tomatoes for 10 to 15 seconds or until their skin begins to pull away from their flesh. Immediately remove tomatoes from water with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl of cold water. Leave for a few seconds to cool. Remove tomatoes from water and peel with aid of paring knife.
To seed tomatoes, halve them horizontally. Hold each tomato half over a bowl, cut side down. Squeeze tomato to remove most of seeds and juice.
This recipe is from Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner? Author Lisa Caponigri writes: “This Sicilian dish shows the ingenuity of home cooks who learned to feed their families well with limited resources. Leftover bread is transformed into a flavor- packed sauce for spaghetti with the addition of anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes.”
20 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained 1⁄2 cup milk 1 1⁄2 cups coarsely ground fresh bread crumbs 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil 4 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste 1⁄2 tsp. red pepper flakes (approximately) 900 gr. (2 pounds) spaghetti 1⁄4 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley In a shallow bowl, cover the anchovies with the milk and let soak for 10 minutes. (This reduces the saltiness of the fish.) Drain well and finely chop.
In a small, dry skillet, toast the bread crumbs over medium heat until golden brown, about 4 minutes.
Transfer the crumbs to a plate and let cool.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and discard the garlic.
Add the red pepper flakes and anchovies to the skillet. Mash the anchovies against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon until a smooth puree forms. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente, 7 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving 3 tablespoons of the cooking water. Add the reserved water to the anchovy sauce and warm over medium-low heat. Add the pasta to the skillet and toss to coat with the sauce.
Transfer the pasta to a warm serving bowl, toss with the bread crumbs and parsley, and serve immediately.
Makes 8 to 10 servings