Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Entertaining your Family: Tomato Sauce

Now that you have all that freshly grated fantastic Parmigiano Reggiano at your disposal, I figured it would be quite logical of me to post about how you can also give up that pre-bottled pasta sauce and make your own - and it too will cost you less money! Though it may seem quick and convenient to buy one of those jars (and how can you miss them, what are there about 50 varieties now?), I am here to tell you that making your own can be just as easy (and just as quick and convenient). It is also extremely easy to customize the flavours of each sauce to your liking, or to your particular mood, or to whatever ingredients you have on hand! Can it really get much better than that? YES! I'm going to give you 3 of my favorite "go-to" sauces that you can use any day of the week - even tonight - because I can almost guarantee you have all the ingredients in your house right now for at least one of these recipes!
It all starts, of course, with the humble tomato. This pictures is taken from a website that talks about San Marzano tomatoes (as well as the health benefits of tomatoes in general, so be sure to check it out HERE). San Marzano's have a reputation among many cooks (and Italians alike) as being the best tomato for a pasta sauce. And though I do buy them when I happen to be in a speciality shop, I'm not going to tell you that it's a necessity for good sauce (not to mention I can almost guarantee that the stuff in those jars we are trying desperately to steer away from do not contain one single San Marzano tomato). But, you do need tomatoes, of some sort or another. Most common for me is a regular old tin of whole tomatoes. I happen to like a smooth sauce, so I give the contents a quick whirl in the food processor before I use them, but mashing them with a fork or the back of spoon for a more textured sauce also works well. I've also been known to use vine-ripened tomatoes (when in season) for my sauces. If that's what you choose as your base, it's a good idea to blanch them, and then remove the skin. If you don't even want to go to that amount of trouble, but still like the idea of fresh tomatoes, try cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes. They'll pop and release their juices, but the skin won't be as much of an issue. Basically, choose whatever kind of tomatoes are easily available to you and require the least amount of effort!
So, the recipes:
1. Simply Delicious
This is as simple as it gets, but it will blow you away at how tasty it is!
2 tbsp good quality olive oil
2 gloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 can (28oz) tomatoes (with their juice)
salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large saute pan. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook gently until garlic just begins to brown. Add tomatoes. Allow to simmer for about 15 minutes just until the sauce starts to thicken slightly. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Add-Ins: I use this recipe quite often as a base for a pesto/tomato sauce. After the sauce has simmered, I add in about a cup of pesto. Alternately, you could simply add a cup of fresh basil for fresher flavour.
Serving Suggestions: Of course, this sauce is great on it's own with spaghetti, but we find it's a perfect pairing with tortellini and grilled Italian sausages - in fact, I served it during a dinner party once (Andra if you're out there say all those great things you did that night at dinner!!).
2. Tomato Sauce with White Wine
Browning onions and tomato paste give this sauce a little more depth of flavour. It also shows a recipe using vine-ripened tomatoes, but you can always substitute won't make a difference!

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
4 gloves garlic
1 can tomato paste
3/4 cup white wine
3 vine ripened tomatoes, blanched, and finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

Heat olive in a medium size saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are just starting to brown. Add tomato paste, and cook for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scrapping any brown bits. Add tomatoes and half the basil, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Let cook, uncovered, on medium-low heat for 30 minutes, or until mixture starts to thicken. Add remaining basil as well as salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Add-Ins: This is the base I use for my red clam sauce. I live in Calgary, so fresh clams are not always at my fingertips so I use canned quite often. Simply add 1 can of clams (with juice) after tomato sauce has simmered, and cook for an additional 10 minutes (just until clams are heated through). Then add the remaining basil and season with S&P.
Serving Suggestions: When making this into a clam sauce, the logical choice is linguine, but this sauce is pretty rich and delicious on it's own. Serve with penne or any kind of short pasta!
3. Veggie Tomato Sauce
Don't tell the kids, but this sauce is packed with carrots and zucchini! They'll never notice me!
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, grated
2 large cloves garlic, grated
1 zucchini, grated
1 carrot, grated
1 can (28oz) crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1 tsp Italian seasoning
salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in medium sized saucepan. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft. Add zucchini and carrot, and allow to cook a few more minutes. Add tomatoes, wine and seasoning, and allow to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Add-Ins: Use a mixture of any vegetables you have on hand. Red peppers also work well. The trick is to grate the vegetables (any large-grate cheese grater will do). This will allow them to melt away during the long simmering time and make them virtually unnoticeable!
Serving Suggestions: This is perfect as is with a good mound of spaghetti.
Finally, I have one last suggestion for the perfect pasta dish. One thing I always do before adding the sauce to the pasta is that I dress the hot noodles with a nob of butter, a handful of Parmesan cheese (hello parmigiano reggiano), some freshly cracked black pepper, and some fresh herbs. I find the butter and the cheese give the final dish an extra smooth and silky texture and the fresh herbs stay fresh and don't run the risk of getting over cooked. Then simply pour over your sauce (I happen to like the Italian way - just enough sauce to coat everything really well, but not so that the pasta is swimming), and serve any additional sauce on the side.
One final tip - leftover sauce (from any recipe) will freeze really well. But, if you have just a little bit left that you don't want to waste (and if you have young children), freeze it in ice cube trays for a quick defrost and quick meal for your little one if you are on the go!
I hope this has inspired you to give your own sauce a try! Hey, if you have a sauce that you love please share it with me! I'm always on the look out for new recipes and new ways to use that one can of tomatoes - and avoid buying 8 different jars!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

TIP: Grate your own Parmigiano-Reggiano

So, I don't want to shock any of you with this, but the Parmesan you buy in the green plastic container - sandwiched between the dry pasta and the Classico sauce at the grocery store - is not real Parmesan. At least not by my standards. In order to justify itself to me as real it needs to be a) FROM ITALY and b) labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now, from there it can be any brand really - it doesn't have to be the most expensive, or the most sought after because even making sure it fits these two criteria will deliver so much in the flavour department you'll cringe at the plastic container stuff from here on out!

For the last several years, I have been buying my Parmigiano-Reggiano in large chunks, and then grating it myself. Believe it or not, the Costco in my area sells fairly decent Parm at a fairly reasonable price. It will seem expensive and will probably run you at least $25.00 for a good sized wedge, but remember it will last a few months (mine does anyway), and lest we forget that those lovely green plastic containers are usually at least $8.00 at the grocery store, so you are buying a far superior product in bulk (Costco doesn't do anything small) and with minimal labour required at home to grate it.

Now, if you want to, you could seek out a specialty cheese shop, and buy a more expensive brand, with maybe a more distinct flavour, but at the end of the day I do have a grocery budget for my family, so the brand at Costco works for me - and it does fit my criteria (when in doubt make sure the rind of the cheese is stamped with the signature "label" that it has been produced in Italy), not to mention it tastes pretty darn good and makes "real" cheese accessible to everyone!
I personally like to grate my cheese in two "consistencies". I like the finer, powder like grate for sauces, or stirred into soups because it will melt quickly and easily. But, I also prefer a more typical grated cheese to sprinkle over pastas and salads, grilled veggies or pizza.

For the first, you'll need a pretty heavy duty food processor. The first few spins will practically send the whole thing careening to the floor, so I can only imagine the damage this uber-hard cheese would do to one that doesn't have a fairly sturdy base and motor! Simply cut half your wedge of parm into a few large chunks, place in food processor, and whirl until sand like consistency forms.

For the latter, well, let's just say you can skip your arm workout that day. I don't have a grater fine enough on my food processor, so I end up doing this one by hand. It takes a few minutes, and you may break into a sweat, but just keep reminding yourself just how delicious your next batch of spaghetti will be!

And Voila! Several containers of grated, fresh, REAL Parmigiano-Reggiano for your epicurean adventures. I store the smaller containers in the fridge and the larger ones in the freezer, refilling the smaller ones as they run out. Do remember that a little goes a long way, so it really should last you at least a couple of months. Trust me though, the effort (and the slightly elevated cost) will be worth it. You'll never go back to that pre-packaged stuff again (and your belly will certainly thank you!)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

BUY: Asparagus

First off - sincere apologies. I haven't kept up with my blog last few weeks. I'm not sure how many people are even out there reading it, but it's still important to me that I post more regularly than I have been. So, that said, I will try to get back on my "every other Wednesday" schedule right away!

While I was off something crazy happened - SRRING! Now, here in Calgary, Spring is relative. Yes, we have the same official start date as the rest of the world, but up until a few days ago we were still shoveling snow on a regular basis. Today though it sits at a comfortable +15 C., so I think I can safely declare that Spring has arrived.

Asparagus is certainly a vegetable that screams this change of season. Sure, it's available all year round now, but it's harvested more often in the Spring to early summer than any other time of the year, making it at it's peak in flavour and freshness. Not to mention it's far less expensive to buy vegetables in season, so now is the time to stock up on some asparagus.

Browsing the internet for some additional info, I also learned that asparagus is actually extremely high if folacin (also knows as folic acid) - 60% of our recommended daily allowance in fact! This is extremely useful information for women especially - folacin is key in preventing neural tube defects in babies during pregnancy. Known mostly to be found in green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, I actually had no idea there was such a large amount in asparagus! Of course, it is widely known that folacin needs to be consumed well before the pregnancy even occurs to have an adequate supply in the system, so it is recommended that all women in "childbearing age" consume at least 0.4mg daily. (This is also a super important vitamin for people who are not "women of childbearing age" as folic acid deficiency can lead to fatigue, poor growth and intestinal problems).

Luckily, asparagus is delicious, and we eat it quite frequently. The most common method to prepare it at our house is roasting. Simply drizzle washed and trimmed asparagus spears (the bottom of an asparagus spear is very woody - simply break off the bottom at it's "natural" point. You can also cut the bottoms, or even grate the bottom with a vegetable peeler if you prefer) with a glug or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss on a sheet pan and roast in 450 - 500 degree oven for 5 - 8 minutes (depending on the thickness of your spears). Shake the pan once during roasting to ensure all sides are well caramelized.

Another favorite in our family is asparagus pasta. Wash, trim, and cut a couple handfuls of asparagus into bite size pieces. On very low heat, cook a tablespoons or so of garlic with a teaspoon or so of hot pepper flakes along with 3 - 4 tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon or so of butter (like my measurements? This is a very forgiving recipe so you can cook to your own taste). Add asparagus and gently cook until spears are tender-crisp. Toss with enough pasta for two, a handful of good quality Parmesan cheese and some freshly ground pepper. This makes an amazing side dish, or simply dinner all on it's own (has been for me on many an occasion!).

So, run to the grocery store, buy some asparagus, make yourself a tasty meal, and procreate healthy children. Sounds good to me!

Pictures and nutritional information courtesy of