Healthy Mediterranean Cooking at Home

Tag Archives: Tomato sauce

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In Italy, there are sugo and salsa. Sugo derives from succo (juices) and refers to pan drippings that come from cooking meat or from a rich meat-based sauce, such as, sugo alla Bolognese and thick vegetable sauces (which often go over pasta). A salsa is a semi-liquid raw or cooked sauce that’s used as a condiment. It can go over pasta or used to season other dishes, for example, pesto alla genovese or salsa verde that is served over boiled meats or potatoes. If a sauce is especially delicate, it may be called “salsina.”

The passage from sugo/salsa to sauce/gravy must have occurred when immigrant families settled into new neighborhoods in the U.S. and became an Italian-American family/neighborhood tradition more than anything else. Some immigrants translated the Italian for what they put on their pasta as gravy, while others translated it as sauce and the translations have been passed down through the generations, becoming the definitive lable in the process. People get amazingly passionate over things like this.

The aroma of a garlic-laden tomato sauce spiked with sausage, meatballs and rolled-up braciole can bring tears to the eyes of many Italian-Americans. Sunday gravy, evokes memories of weekend family gatherings in which mom or grandma presided over the constantly stirred pot of sauce and meat, and various relatives were tasked with procuring the essential provisions to round out the dinner—the cannoli and sesame bread from the bakery or the wine from the cellar.

Sunday gravy was more than just a big meal. In close-knit Italian-American homes, it was a virtual religion. The best Sunday gravy simmered on the stove for hours and the meats in the sauce became a symbol of plenty. Meat had been a rarity in the old country and, if there was any of it at all in a meal, it was usually pork. But in the U.S., immigrant women bought beef because they could. The long, slow cooking time was also a time for families to spend with each other, reinforcing ties that could withstand the harsh realities of the outside world.

When I was young, my mother would make Italian gravy every Sunday. She would start at dawn and work in the kitchen pretty much until dinner time, which was around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Not only did she prepare this sauce with meatballs, sausage, etc. for pasta, but she would also cook a pork roast or an eye of the round roast, vegetables and salad. In those days, my grandfather would come to dinner and bring Hershey chocolate bars, ice cream and a jug of homemade wine.

This tradition is time-consuming and quite a lot of work. Not the healthiest of meals, either, with all the meat and oil used in its preparation. I make tomato sauce with meatballs and sausage quite often but on a much smaller scale with a lot less fat and with healthier meat for the meatballs and I do the same for Sunday gravy. Just for the fun of it, I make Italian gravy once or twice a year. This time it is for the blog, so you can see just exactly what Sunday Gravy is all about.

Italian Gravy

The Meat

The Meat

The Sauce Ingredients

The Sauce Ingredients

Ingredients

Gravy

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound sweet Italian fennel sausage, cut into links
  • 11 to 12 ounces boneless pork ribs
  • Meatballs, recipe below
  • Braciole, recipe below
  • 3 (26-ounce) containers of Italian chopped tomatoes, without salt or sugar added
  • 2 (26-ounce) containers of Italian crushed tomatoes, without salt or sugar added
  • 2-6 ounce cans tomato paste
  • Water
  • 3 whole garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon each salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

Meatballs

  • 1 pound grass-fed ground beef
  • 1 pound pasture-raised ground pork
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup dried Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon each salt and black pepper

Braciole

  • 1 pound beef top round, flank steak or strip steak, pounded thin
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallots
  • 1/2 cup dried Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 large clove garlic chopped finely
  • 1/4 cup pignolis – toasted and chopped, optional
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • String (butcher’s twine) to secure the rolls

Pasta

  • 1 pound of pasta
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 7-8 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

To make the braciole:

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Lay the meat out on a board. Pound with a mallet to thin the meat. Cut the meat into 5-6” slices.

In a small bowl combine the olive oil, chopped parsley, shallots, bread crumbs, cheese, garlic, pignolis, if using, and salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the beef rolls. Fold in the sides over the filling of each roll. Roll up each slice and secure with kitchen string.

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To make the gravy:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil (for easy clean up) and coat them with olive oil cooking spray. Place the sausage links on one baking sheet. The second baking pan is for the meatballs.

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In a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil and add the boneless pork ribs. Cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side or until browned all over. Place on a clean plate.

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Add the braciole rolls and brown them on all sides. Transfer to the plate with the pork and cover with foil to keep warm.

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Add the onion and garlic to the pot and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until softened. Add the tomato paste. Fill the empty paste cans with water and add to the pot. Stir into the onions and let cook for 2 or 3 minutes.

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Pour in all the tomatoes and fill one tomato container with water and add it to the pot. Add the seasonings (crushed red pepper – parsley), the pork ribs and the sausage. Bring to a boil; reduce to a low simmer and cook for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Add the cooked meatballs and braciole to the gravy after it has simmered for one hour. Simmer for an additional 3 to 4 hours (if you want it thick and rich). Stir in the fresh basil just before adding the gravy to the pasta.

In the meantime, cook the pasta in salted water until al dente. Once cooked, drain and add the gravy. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve the meat on a big platter, so diners can choose what they want.

To make the meatballs and sausage:

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Add the water to the bread crumbs, mix well and let sit for a few minutes. Place the meat in a large bowl. Add the onion, garlic, cheese and parsley to the meat. In a small bowl, beat the egg with the salt and pepper and add to the meat mixture. Add the moistened bread crumbs. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the consistency is moist and the meat holds together well. Using your hands, roll the meatballs into 1 1/2-inch balls.Two pounds of meat should make about 18 to 20 meatballs. Place the meatballs on the foil lined baking sheet.

Bake for about 20 minutes, or until browned, turning them over after 10 minutes. Cover and keep warm.

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Place the pan of sausage links in the oven at the same time and bake the sausage until browned. Turn over halfway through baking. Add the sausage to the gravy when the pork ribs are added.

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A single plant can produce over a dozen tomatoes, which means you can give a basket to the neighbors and still include almost every meal with this nutrient-rich fruit. Serve them in pasta, pizza, vinaigrettes and even desserts. Paired with the right spices, tomatoes can be sweet, tangy or tart.

Sometimes the best way to enjoy fresh produce is to free it from heavy sauces or other flavor-masking extras. Serve a Mediterranean-inspired stuffed tomato with feta, olives and a little basil. It’s a great complement to any grilled entrée or add a little chopped chicken to the mix and serve on its own. Use sturdy, ripe tomatoes for optimal flavor and presentation.

When the temperature climbs, dinner cravings often tend toward light and simple. Make a pasta dish that’s packed with the freshest of ingredients, including fresh mozzarella, garlic, basil and, of course, tomatoes. A little olive oil adds flavor that rounds out the simple sauce.

Fresh tomato salsas, chutneys and dressings add color and flavor to almost any meat. Try it with grilled sea bass for a refreshing summer dish. A warm vinaigrette dressing pairs well with fluffy couscous, so make extra to use on other main dishes.

Update pizza night by replacing the standard jarred tomato sauce with a homemade basil pesto sauce. Top a store-bought pizza dough with the pesto, then layer on chopped tomatoes, garlic, provolone and a few sprinkles of basil and bake for a quick homemade pizza.

Looking for some new ideas on how to use tomatoes? Have you thought of these?

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Roasted Tomato Soup with Shrimp

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 8 medium ripe tomatoes, quartered and seeded (about 2 1/2 pounds total)
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, quartered and seeded
  • 1 medium red onion, cut in wedges
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup torn crusty country bread
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon snipped fresh basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4-1/2 cup water (optional)
  • 12 ounces peeled and deveined cooked shrimp, chilled
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Snipped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Arrange tomatoes, cut sides up, sweet pepper quarters, onion wedges and garlic between two 15x10x1 inch baking pans. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Roast 30 minutes or until tomatoes are soft and vegetables are lightly browned on edges.

Place roasted vegetables and any pan juices in a large food processor. Add bread. Cover and process until smooth. Transfer to a large serving bowl.

Stir in vinegar, basil, salt and pepper. If desired, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup water to make a thinner consistency. Cover; chill at last 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

Spoon soup in bowls. Top with shrimp. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and, if desired, sprinkle with parsley.

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Chicken-Stuffed Tomatoes

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds cooked chicken breast
  • 1 cup fresh spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup snipped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar or regular balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 large tomatoes (8 to 10 ounces each)
  • 2 thin slices firm-texture whole wheat bread, toasted and cut into small cubes
  • 2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese

Directions

Chop enough meat to measure 2 cups; save the remaining chicken for another use.

In a medium bowl, combine the 2 cups chicken, the spinach, green onions, basil, vinegar, oil and garlic. Toss to evenly coat.

Cut a 1/4 inch-thick slice from the stem end of each tomato. Using a spoon, carefully scoop out the tomato pulp, leaving a 1/4- to 1/2-inch-thick shell.

Place shells, open sides up, on a serving plate. Discard tomato seeds. Chop enough of the tomato pulp to measure 1/2 cup; reserve remaining pulp for another use.

Stir the 1/2 cup tomato pulp into the chicken mixture.

Divide chicken mixture among tomato shells. Top with bread cubes and cheese.

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Pork Chops in Herbed Tomato Sauce

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 pork rib chops, cut 1 inch thick
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup minced yellow onions
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 pound ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 large clove mashed garlic
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup beef stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped Italian parsley

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Dry the pork chops on paper towels. Heat the oil in a heavy, 10-12 inch oven-proof skillet with a cover.

Brown the chops, 2 or 3 at a time, on each side for 3 to 4 minutes. As they are browned, transfer them to a side dish.

Add the onions, cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes. Mix in the flour and stir over low heat for 2 minutes more. Stir in the tomatoes and the next four ingredients.

Cover and cook slowly for 5 minutes. Stir in the wine and beef stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Return the pork chops to the pan and push them into the sauce.

Cover the pan and bring to simmer on top of the stove, then set the pan in the lower third of the preheated oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the chops are done.

Arrange the chops on a serving platter and pour the sauce over the chops. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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Tomato-Artichoke Focaccia

Ingredients

  • 3 1/2 – 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups warm water (120 degrees F to 130 degrees F)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • Nonstick olive oil cooking spray
  • 1 1/4 pounds plum (Roma) tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 10-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon snipped fresh rosemary
  • 1 small red onion, very thinly sliced and separated into rings
  • 4 cloves garlic, cut into thin slivers

Directions

In a large bowl, combine 1-1/2 cups of the flour, the yeast and salt. Add the warm water and the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Beat with an electric mixer on low to medium speed for 30 seconds, scraping side of bowl constantly. Beat on high-speed for 3 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in cornmeal and 2 cups of the remaining flour.

You can also use the dough hook on the electric mixer for this addition and the addition of the remaining flour below, instead.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes total). Shape dough into a ball. Place dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to oil the surface.

Cover and let the dough rise in a warm place until double in size (45 to 60 minutes). Punch down dough; let rest for 10 minutes.

Grease a 15x10x1 inch baking pan. Place dough in the prepared baking pan. Gently pull and stretch dough to the edges of the baking pan, being careful not to overwork dough.

Lightly coat dough with cooking spray. Cover loosely with plastic wrap; let dough rise in a warm place until nearly double in size (about 30 minutes).

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Arrange tomato and artichoke slices on a double thickness of paper towels. Let stand for 15 minutes. Change paper towels as necessary so all of the excess liquid is absorbed from tomatoes and artichokes.

Using your fingers, press deep indentations in the dough 1-1/2 to 2 inches apart. Brush dough with the 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle with rosemary. Arrange tomatoes, artichokes, onion rings and garlic slivers evenly on top of dough.

Bake about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into rectangles. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 12 servings.

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Pan Roasted Fish Fillets With Tomato Sauce

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 (6-oz.) fish fillets (3/4- 1 inch thick) 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon drained capers
  • 1 tablespoon shredded basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 cups fresh tomatoes, seeded and diced

Directions

Pat fish dry with paper towels. Season fish with 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook fish in hot oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat 3 minutes on each side. Transfer fish to a plate and keep warm.

Add onion and garlic to the skillet and sauté 2 minutes or until the onion is tender. Stir in capers, basil, oregano and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook 1 minute.

Reduce heat to low, add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. Return fish to the pan with the tomato sauce and heat gently. Serve fish topped with the sauce.


A Neapolitan Market by Attilio Pratella

Neapolitan cuisine has ancient historical roots that date back to the Greco-Roman period, which was enriched over the centuries by the influence of the different cultures that controlled Naples and its kingdoms, such as that of Aragon and France. Since Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Naples, its cuisine took much from the culinary traditions of the region, balancing between dishes based on rural ingredients and seafood. The Spanish and French rule in Naples initiated the difference between the cuisine of the aristocrats and that of the poorer classes. The former was characterized by elaborate, more cosmopolitan dishes and a greater number of expensive ingredients, including meat.

Braciola (plural braciole) is the name given to thin slices of meat (typically pork, chicken, beef or swordfish) that are rolled as a roulade with cheese and bread crumbs. Interestingly, the word braciole derives from the word for charcoal, implying that it was originally cooked “alla brace”, that is, grilled and that it was a cut of meat with the bone.

What are known as braciole in the United States are named involtini in Italian. Each involtini are held together by a wooden toothpick and the dish is usually served in a sauce as a second course. When cooked in tomato sauce, the sauce itself is used to coat the pasta for the first course, giving a consistent taste to the whole meal. Involtini can be cooked along with meatballs and Italian sausage in a Neapolitan ragù or tomato sauce called “Sunday gravy” (northeastern United States). They can also be prepared without tomato sauce. There exist many variations on the recipe, including using different types of cheese and the addition of vegetables, such as eggplant. Braciole are not exclusively eaten as a main dish, but can also be served as a side dish at dinner or in a sandwich for lunch.

First Course

Potato Gnocchi with Peas, Prosciutto and Ricotta

Directions:

Boil the gnocchi in batches in plenty of salted water. The gnocchi are done about 2 minutes after they float to the surface; remove them with a slotted spoon. Reserve about 1/2 cup cooking water.

At the same time heat a large skillet with 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat, add shallots and saute until translucent. Add prosciutto and cook until crisp. Add in the peas and toss gently to coat. Season with a little salt and pepper. Add boiled gnocchi to the pan and gently toss. Add butter and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Stir in the lemon ricotta and add some of the gnocchi water to thin the sauce, if needed.

Lemon Ricotta:

  • 1 cup good quality ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 lemon, zested and juiced
  • Salt

Place the ricotta cheese in a mixing bowl and add the lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Second Course

Braised Beef Braciole Stuffed with Basil and Mozzarella

This is a home-style version of the Italian-American classic. The traditional dish uses small roulades of beef round, but in this recipe I use a whole flank steak because it is easier to stuff and roll one large cut of meat and flank steak has more flavor than round steak.

Ingredients:

  • One 2 lb. flank steak
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 12 large basil leaves, torn into pieces
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, cut into thin strips (about 1-1/2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • One 26-28-oz. container crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 8 oz. white mushrooms, quartered

Directions:

Place the flank steak on a large cutting board. Using a chef’s knife, slice the steak lengthwise along one long side (without cutting all the way through the meat) and open it up like a book. Using a meat mallet, flatten the meat so it is about 1/4 inch thick. Sprinkle both sides of the meat with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

For the stuffing: put the mozzarella, Parmigiano, bread crumbs and basil in a food processor and pulse to combine. Sprinkle the stuffing evenly over the beef and roll it up lengthwise, jelly roll–style, with the stuffing inside. Secure with kitchen twine in five or six places.

Heat half the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it’s shimmering. Add the beef and cook until it browns and releases easily from the pan, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook the other side until browned, about 5 more minutes. Transfer meat to a large plate.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the onion to the pan and lower the heat to medium. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until the onion wilts completely and turns a light brown, about 8 minutes. Add the red wine and cook, stirring, until it is almost completely reduced, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and red pepper flakes and bring to a boil.

Reduce to a gentle simmer and add the meat and mushrooms to the sauce. Cover and cook, repositioning the meat occasionally, until the meat becomes tender and cuts easily with a paring knife, about 1-1/2 hours.

Set the meat on a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes. Thinly slice and serve topped with the sauce. (Adapted from Big Buy Cooking)

Spicy Rapini with Garlic and Oregano

4 Servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe (rapini), ends trimmed and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2-3 large garlic cloves minced
  • 1/2 dried oregano, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper, crushed
  • Salt to taste

Directions:

Cook broccoli in boiling, salted water in a large saucepan 2 to 3 minutes or until just tender; drain. Rinse with cold water and and drain again. Coarsely chop.

Heat oil in the same saucepan. Add broccoli, garlic, crushed red pepper and oregano; cook stirring 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt, to taste.

Mixed-Greens-and-Herb Salad

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 4 ounces Black Mission figs, thinly sliced ( 2/3 cup)
  • 8 cups mixed Italian lettuce greens
  • 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 tablespoons torn mint leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill
  • 2 tablespoons snipped chives
  • 1 ounce fresh pecorino, shaved

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Spread the walnuts in a pie plate and toast until golden, about 10 minutes; let cool, then coarsely chop.

In a large bowl, whisk the vinegar with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Add the figs, greens, parsley, mint, dill, chives, pecorino and walnuts and toss gently.

Dessert Course

Italian Apple Cake

Ingredients:

  • 4 1/2 oz. (125 grams) butter
  • 1 TB butter for greasing pan
  • 3/4 cups (125 grams) sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 ¾ cup (250 grams) flour
  • 1 heaping tablespoon baking powder (16 grams)
  • 2/3 cup (125 ml) milk
  • Grated rind of 2 lemons
  • For the apples:
  • 1 ½ lb. (700 grams) apples (Golden Delicious)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • Confectioners sugar

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350° F (180°C) and thoroughly butter and flour a 10” (25 cm) springform pan.

Sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until soft, add the 3/4 cups sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and salt. Add the flour gradually, alternating with the milk, beating well after each addition. Stir in the lemon rind. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it with a spatula so it is even.

Peel, quarter and core the apples. Slice each quarter into 3-4 pieces, about 1/4 inch wide. Place the slices core side down on the batter. Start from the outside making one circle, then make a smaller inner circle of apple slices. The apples should be quite close together so that you barely see the batter. You may have a few apple slices that don’t fit. Sprinkle the surface of the apple cake with the 1 1/2 tablespoons of granulated sugar.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Place on a rack, remove the springform side and allow to cool. Sieve powdered sugar over the apple cake before serving. Serves 8-10.


Entertaining, especially during the holiday season, can be challenging. Not only do you need to spend time wrapping gifts, baking cookies, getting the house and yourself ready, but you need to make meals! A dinner menu can be expensive. Just look at the cost for a beef or pork roast; you can easily spend more than $20.00 – $30.00 just on the entree. Save money and time by making several pasta sauces before the holidays, freeze them and defrost them, as needed, for entertaining over the busy holiday season.

You can make Italian pasta sauces with or without meat ahead of time and keep them in the refrigerator for up to a week or frozen for many months. Pasta cooks quickly. Toss it with one of these great sauces, below, and you have a quick delicious meal your guests are sure to appreciate. All you need to round out the menu is a simple appetizer, a bottle of wine and an easy dessert.

I keep an assortment of dry pastas and frozen fresh pastas, on hand, to help with stress free entertaining during busy times. You just need to decide what type of pasta you want to make for a dinner party and fit the sauce to the pasta type. The texture of pasta will often determine the type of pasta sauce that can most effectively be used — thicker or shaped pastas can withstand heartier sauces, while thin pastas have better results with lighter sauces.

Good pasta sauces enhance the delicate flavor of the pasta without overpowering it. There are many types of pasta sauces, from the light and simple marinara sauce to the thick and rich Alfredo sauce. Traditional sauces are made from a base of tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, cream, meat or cheese. Some types of pasta sauces combine several ingredients to make a more complex sauce. Bolognese sauce, for example, includes meat, tomatoes, cream, wine and fresh herbs.

Types of Sauces

Marinara

Marinara sauce is a simple, basic sauce made from tomatoes and olive oil. The tomatoes are seasoned with garlic and fresh basil. Some recipes also add other ingredients, such as onions and parsley. Fresh tomatoes are ideal, but you can use canned, peeled tomatoes instead.

Bolognese or Meat Sauce or Ragu

Bolognese sauce is named for its origin in Bologna, Italy. Traditional Bolognese sauce includes two or more types of meat chopped into small pieces. When cooked, the meat blends in with the other ingredients, seasonings and herbs. A variety of vegetables, including onions, celery and chile peppers, can be added to the tomatoes and olive oil. Seasonings include nutmeg, basil, oregano and bay leaves. Some cooks add cream or milk to give the sauce a rich flavor.

Alfredo

Alfredo is a rich, creamy white sauce. You can use heavy cream, or substitute half and half or whole milk for a lighter version. The cream is mixed with butter and grated Parmesan cheese. The sauce is seasoned with pepper and, sometimes, nutmeg. Alfredo sauce is usually served on fettuccine noodles.

Puttanesca

Puttanesca is a strong, spicy red sauce. The spicy flavor comes from the garlic, dried chili peppers, anchovies and capers added to the tomatoes. You can make the sauce hot or mild by adjusting the amounts of spices.

Pesto

Pesto is a delicate sauce made from a paste of ingredients such as olive oil, pine nuts, fresh basil and garlic. Pesto sauce can be served with grated cheese. Pesto is a more healthful sauce because it contains only unsaturated fats.

Alcohol-Based

Some types of alcohol, including wine, are a flavorful ingredient for certain pasta sauces. Madeira sauce, for example, uses Madeira wine. Marsala sauce includes the namesake wine as a key ingredient. Its base is made from tomatoes, mushrooms or fruit.

Here are some of my favorite prepare ahead sauces for entertaining:

Pork and Sausage Ragù

Yields about 2 quarts

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 lb. boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt)
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped (2 cups)
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 3 cups strainedPomi tomatoes
  • 3 dried bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 lb. sweet Italian pork sausage (3 links)

Directions:

Heat the oil in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-duty pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season the pork generously on both sides with salt and pepper and sear the meat on all sides until well browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Using tongs, transfer the pork to a deep platter.

Reduce the heat to medium low and add the garlic and onion to the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent, 7 to 8 minutes. Return the pork to the pot, raise the heat to medium high, and add the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or two and then add the tomatoes, Italian seasoning and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium low to maintain a gentle simmer.

Remove the sausages from their casings and break the meat apart over the pot, allowing it to fall into the sauce in small clumps. Cover the pot and simmer gently, adjusting the heat as necessary, for 30 minutes. Uncover and turn the pork shoulder; then re-cover and continue to cook at a gentle simmer, turning the meat once or twice more, until very tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Transfer the pork to a cutting board with tongs and let cool for a few minutes. Using two forks, shred the meat and return it to the sauce. Cook over low heat until the meat and sauce are heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Chill the sauce overnight and, the next day, remove any fat that has congealed on the surface of the sauce. The ragù can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat gently before tossing with the pasta, such as pappardelle.

Mushroom Ragu

Makes 6 cups

This is a great vegetarian sauce, very complex and satisfying, It’s excellent for pasta, baked in a lasagna or poured over polenta, cooked into risotto-or as a condiment for grilled steak or fish. The mushrooms you can buy at the supermarket will make a fine sauce-if you have access to fresh wild mushrooms, it will be even better. In either case, dried porcini provide an important flavor for this sauce. I like to serve this over fettuccine.

Ingredients

  • 2½ pounds fresh mixed mushrooms, small and firm
  • 1/2 ounce dried porcini, soaked in 1 1/4 cups warm water
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, a tender stem about 4-inches long
  • 1 sprig fresh sage, with 4 big leaves
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry Marsala
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups hot beef or vegetable broth

Directions:

Squeeze out the soaked porcini and slice them into pieces about 1/4-inch wide. Strain the soaking water and keep it in a warm spot.

Clean, trim and slice the fresh mushrooms into moderately thin slices, barely 1/4-inch wide.

Tie all the fresh herb sprigs together with piece of kitchen twine or enclose the leaves in cheesecloth.

Sauce

Put the oil and butter in the big skillet (or other saucepan) and place over medium heat. When the butter melts, add the onions and shallots and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and stir well. Heat the onions to a slow sizzle and cook for 6 minutes or more-stirring often-until they’re soft, wilted and shiny, without any browning.

Pour all the mushrooms into the pan-both the chopped porcini and sliced mushrooms; spread and toss them in the pan. Sprinkle in another 1/4 teaspoon salt, drop in the herb bouquet, toss briefly, raise the heat a bit and cover the pan. Cook covered for about 3 minutes,shake the pan now and then, to sweat the mushrooms.

Uncover and continue to cook over fairly high heat, stirring frequently, as the mushrooms shrink and the liquid evaporates, 5 minutes or more. When the pan is dry and the mushrooms begin to brown, clear a hot spot, drop in the tomato paste and heat it, stirring, for a minute or so, then stir it into the mushrooms.

When everything is sizzling and browning again, and just starting to stick, pour the Marsala all over. Stir constantly as the wine thickens and evaporates. When the mushrooms again start sticking to the bottom, pour in the warm mushroom water and 2 cups of the hot stock. Bring to a boil, stirring up any caramelization on the pan bottom. Lower the heat to keep the sauce bubbling gently all over the surface and cover the pan. Cook for about 20 minutes, occasionally stirring and adding stock to keep the mushrooms nearly covered in liquid; expect to add 1/2 cup or so. Adjust the heat to keep a steady bubble but not too rapid.

Uncover the pan and cook for another 20 minutes, maintaining a simmer and adding stock as needed. When mushrooms are thoroughly tender and the saucy liquid thickened-but not too condensed-the sauce is done. Remove the herb bouquet and discard it (after you scrape off all the good sauce). Taste and add salt, if needed, and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Use the sauce immediately or let it cool. Store it in the refrigerator for a week or freeze, for use within several months.

Italian-American Meat Sauce

Makes 8 cups

Ingredients:

  • 3- 28 oz.containers Pomi chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, diced (about 2 cups)
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • salt
  • 3/4 cups dry red wine
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 4 cups hot water

Directions:

Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4 to 5-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Make a little room in the center of the pot, add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add the ground beef and pork and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring to break up the meat, until the meat changes color and the water it gives off is boiled away, about 10 minutes. Continue cooking until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaves, basil and oregano then pour in the wine. Bring to a boil and cook, scraping up the brown bits that cling to the pot, until the wine is almost completely evaporated. Pour in the tomatoes, then stir in the hot water and tomato paste until dissolved. Season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a lively simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring often, until the sauce takes on a deep, brick-red color and thickens, 2 to 3 hours.

The sauce can be prepared entirely in advance and refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months. This sauce works very well with spaghetti or short pasta, such as penne.

Spicy Tomato Sauce                                                                  

Makes enough for 2 lbs. pasta. Good over bucatini pasta.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 oz. pancetta, small dice (leave out if you have vegetarian guests)
  • Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots, minced
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red chili flakes
  • 2- 28-oz. container Pomi strained tomatoes
  • Kosher salt, to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 6–8 minutes. Add pepper; cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Increase heat to medium-high; add garlic, carrots, and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 6 minutes. Add chili flakes; cook for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens and flavors meld, about 1 hour. Season with salt; keep warm. Store in the refrigerator or freeze.

Lasagna Sauce with Little Meatballs                   

This is a favorite in our family, especially for Christmas. Prepare the meatballs in advance and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 2 days, or freeze in a ziplock bag for up to 1 month. Use this sauce in place of your regular tomato sauce in your favorite lasagna recipe.

Ingredients:

Meatballs:

  • 1 lb ground beef or turkey
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup Italian dried bread crumbs
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • salt & pepper

Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1-28 oz container Pomi chopped tomatoes
  • 1-6 oz can of tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • salt & pepper to taste

Directions:

For the meatballs:

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 450 degree F. Spray large rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

In large bowl mix together the ground meat, cheese, oregano, bread crumbs, egg, water, salt & pepper. Pinch off small grape-sized pieces of the meat mixture and roll into balls; arrange on prepared baking sheet. Bake just until cooked through, about 8-10 minutes. Transfer meatballs to paper towel lined platter to drain excess fat.

For the sauce:

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant (30 sec-1 min). Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper and whisk until thoroughly combined. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened. Take off the heat and add the meatballs to the pot, cover and keep warm while pasta is cooking.

 


Oven-baked pasta has a long history that goes back to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when pasticci, timballi, and other forms of baked pasta were often served at the large banquets in the palaces of nobles. Pasta al forno was an opportunity for the chef to show off his creativity and inventiveness. Eventually, the dish was adopted all over Italy—its success no doubt due to its infinite versatility. Today, it’s still a staple dish of southern Italy, where it is usually prepared on Sundays, religious holidays, and special occasions.

In Italy, the great variety in preparations of pasta al forno depends not only on what you have in your refrigerator or pantry, but also on regional traditions and approaches. For instance, in northern Italy, butter, pork fat, or even bone marrow are used for sautéing ingredients or in preparing the ragù (meat sauce); while in the southern regions, olive oil is predominantly used. Southern-style baked pastas are often based on vegetables—such as roasted or grilled eggplant; peppers or zucchini; sautéed or steamed peas; spinach or chard; broccoli or broccoli rabe; or cauliflower. Often local cured meats—such as sopressata, prosciutto, or sausages—are added. Sometimes tiny meatballs or even sliced hard-boiled eggs are used. Cheeses—such as caciocavallo, scamorza, provola, and mozzarella—are layered inside to melt or form a crusty top.

Most Italian-Americans know about the classic dishes called Manicotti and Cannelloni. They are featured in most Italian restaurants across the country. But to some extent, many aren’t able to describe the difference between the two. The names for these pasta dishes are often interchanged without thinking about how the dish is formed.

“Manicotti” means “small muffs”, and was originally made using crepes rolled around a savory ricotta and grated cheese filling. These can be topped with either a basic tomato sauce for a light first course, or with Ragu (meat sauce) and topped with mozzarella before baking in a hot oven. They are most often made with dried pasta tubes for stuffing that need to be boiled first. The name Manicotti is not found in Italy, as any dish made with crepes rolled around a sweet or savory filling is simply called “crespelle”.

In America many Italians use a pasta dough for Manicotti instead of crepes.  I was brought up with the pasta version and it is probably because my relatives came from southern Italy, while the crepe version probably originated in northern Italian.

Cannelloni means “large reeds”, and are made exclusively from fresh, hand-rolled pasta filled in any variety of ways. One of the most popular is a roasted pork or veal stuffing with vegetables, ground together and stuffed inside the fresh pasta sheets, topped with a Bechamel sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is a typical northern Italian version, featured in the Florence and Reggio-Emilia provinces.

My interpretation of the two is that they are both made with fresh pasta dough (one that would also be used for lasagna) but the fillings and sauce are quite different.  Manicotti is covered with a tomato sauce while Cannelloni is covered with a Bechamel sauce. I also do not care to use the dried pasta tubes for Manicotti sold in the supermarket, as they are not very tender and they are difficult to fill. I prefer to make fresh pasta dough for Lasagna, Manicotti and Cannelloni. I use the same pasta recipe for all three dishes. Dried pasta shells, however, are perfectly fine for Stuffed Shells.    

I have included recipes for the homemade pasta and the different fillings with healthier ingredients than are often used in preparing these dishes.

Homemade Manicotti

For the Pasta:

  • 1 1/2 cups of all purpose or Italian (00) flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of water
  • a dash of salt


For the Filling:

  • 1 pound container of skim milk ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 pound of shredded skim milk mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 box of frozen spinach, thawed and chopped
  • 1 egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To Complete the Dish:

Directions:

To make the filling:

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Refrigerate until needed.

To make the dough:

Mix the flour, egg, salt and water together in the large bowl of a processor.  Process until the dough forms a ball. Coat lightly with olive oil and allow it to rest covered for 30 minutes.

After the pasta dough has rested roll out sheets with a pasta roller to a thickness you can just about see your hand through. With the roller, about the 5th. or 6th. setting for thickness.

Place the sheets on a pastry board and cut into 4″ x 6″ rectangles. You should get 12 of them.

Cook in boiling water for 4 minutes, drain and put into a bowl of cold water. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Take a dish towel and spread it on the counter. Place a pasta rectangle on top of the towel so that the long side is facing you. Place 1/3 cup of filling along the edge of the pasta. Moisten the other edge of the pasta with a wet finger. Gently roll the pasta around the filling making a tube (jelly roll style using the towel to help).

Oil a casserole dish large enough to hold the manicotti and ladle some tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish.

Place the filled manicotti in the casserole dish and repeat until all the pasta is filled.

Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the filled manicotti. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and put in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes removing the foil the last 20 minutes of baking.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Chicken Cannelloni

Follow directions for making the pasta noodles in the recipe above for Manicotti.

Filling:

  • 12 ounces cooked chicken breast
  • 10 ounce package frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
  • 1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • 5 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Cannelloni:

12 sheets fresh noodles, 4  x 6 inches, cooked in boiling water for 4 minutes
Bechamel Sauce, recipe below
3 ounces parmesan cheese, grated
fresh diced tomatoes, and basil or Italian parsley (optional)

Directions:

Dice the chicken breast into 1/2-inch pieces and place into a large mixing bowl. Add spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, pepper and salt, and mix thoroughly.
Arrange pre-cooked pasta sheets on kitchen towels and place two or three rounded tablespoons of filling mixture down the center of each pasta sheet and carefully roll pasta tightly around the filling.

Place the rolled cannelloni, side by side, into a greased ovenproof shallow baking dish.

Pour sauce over cannelloni covering completely.
Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese over top of sauce. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350°F for approximately 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for an additional 20 minutes.
Optional: garnish with fresh diced tomatoes, and basil or Italian parsley.

Olive Oil Béchamel

The milk should be cold or at room temperature. If the liquid is too hot, the roux won’t have time to properly disperse in the liquid before the mixture comes to a boil; this is what causes sauces to lump.
The main thing to watch for here is scorching. Stir often with a rubber spatula, especially at the bottom and edges of the pan, so that the mixture doesn’t stick and begin to burn. If it does, immediately pour the sauce into another pot and continue to cook over very low heat.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or onion (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons flour (Wondra works well since it dissolves quickly)
  • 4 cups skim or 1 percent milk
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground white or black pepper

Directions:

Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy medium saucepan. Add the shallot or onion, and cook, stirring, until softened, about three minutes. Stir in flour (if you use all purpose flour), and cook, stirring, for about three minutes until smooth and bubbling but not browned. The paste should have the texture of wet sand.

If you use Wondra flour, skip the step of adding it to the shallot mixture and just whisk it into the cold milk.

Whisk in the milk all at once, and bring to a simmer, whisking all the while, until the mixture begins to thicken. Turn the heat to very low, and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping the bottom and edges of the pan with a rubber spatula, for 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw flour taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Stuffed Shells

Quick Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 4 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2- 28-ounce containers Pomi strained tomatoes

Filling:

  • 1 pound container skim milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg, beaten or 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 1 cup grated skim milk mozzarella
  • 1/2 box of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

25-30 jumbo dried pasta shells

Oil two 13 x 9-inch baking pans, or equivalent. Set aside.

Directions:

Bring a big pot of water to boiling , and preheat your oven to 350 F.

To make the sauce:

Combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, sea salt, and garlic in a cold saucepan. Stir while you heat the saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute just 45 seconds or so until everything is fragrant – you don’t want the garlic to brown. Stir in the tomatoes and heat.  Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

To make the filling:

Combine the ricotta, egg, spinach and salt in a medium bowl. Mix until combined, then stir in the mozzarella. Set aside.

Cook the shells according to package instructions in well-salted water – until al dente. If you overcook the shells, they will tear as you attempt to fill them. Drain, place on kitchen towels so they do not stick together and let cool long enough to handle with your hands.

Spread 1/3 of sauce across the bottom of each prepared pan. Fill each shell about halfway with ricotta filling, and arrange in a single layer in the pan. If you have extra filling, you can divide evenly and add it to the filled shells.

Ladle the remaining sauce over the shells, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, uncover and bake for 15 minutes or until the shells are cooked through. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4 – 6.


Ciro’s Italian Village, Washington, D.C. (1930)
Photo courtesy of Bill Walsh, copy editor at The Washington Post.

In the early 1900’s the Italian Immigrants who came to America lacked a common language and a common interpretation of “Italian cuisine.”  In Italy they had  been sharecroppers and tenant farmers and had become accustomed to living on the foods they grew on their land. While there was no single style of cooking that typified the newly-arrived Italian, one foodstuff that all Italian immigrants had in common was pasta made from soft wheat flour, water, and salt. At the time, semolina pasta made with durum wheat (as we know it today), was a staple for only the Italian upper classes, however, that would change once the newcomers found housing and steady incomes in America.

As they began to form communities in America, the Calabrese settled with other Calabrese; Sicilians with other Sicilians, etc. They cooked the dishes they remembered from Italy, whenever possible, with ingredients close to those they knew from home. These Italian neighborhoods became the ‘Little Italy’ communities in the major cities of the United States. Among the better known are the North End in Boston, North Beach in San Francisco, The Hill in St. Louis, the Bella Vista neighborhood in Philadelphia, Federal Hill in Providence, and the Little Italy quarters of Chicago, Baltimore, and New York.

Commercial pasta production—on a mom-and-pop level—began with the first waves of immigrants. Many set up shops, some in the front parlors of their apartments, to sell their homemade products to neighbors.

Although many worked as laborers and longshoremen, Italians found that even with a $10.00 weekly wage, one could enjoy the semolina pasta and salume (cured meats) they had been unable to afford back home. Tenement living may have been crowded and unpleasant, but semolina pasta—even simply dressed with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes—gave them a sense of liberation from the oppressive poverty they had known in Italy.  (Source: Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America by Skip Lombardi and Holly Chase.)

Following the First World War, pasta was an inexpensive choice at a time when food prices were rising in America. Recipes for spaghetti and tomato sauce started turning up in women’s magazines. American millers found a new use for flour, the consumption of which had decreased as the population moved to cities and began eating  more varied diets, which were not based on bread. The millers sponsored “eat more wheat” campaigns in the early 1920s and promoted macaroni. Pasta makers began using durum wheat, which they advertised as being higher in protein than soft wheat (it is, but not by much). Campbell’s, Heinz and other manufacturers brought out canned macaroni with tomato sauce, joining Franco-American, which in the 1890s had begun to sell canned spaghetti, stressing that it used a French recipe. Cooking pasta long enough to can it safely, institutionalized what was already a long-established practice, one for which Italians still deride Americans—over cooking pasta.  

Semolina Flour

It became acceptable and fashionable  to promote Italian food, even if the pasta was mush and the tomato sauce was full of sugar and salt. One typical recipe for tomato sauce omitted garlic and consisted of canned tomato soup with Worcestershire sauce added. In 1927 Kraft began marketing grated “Parmesan” cheese in a cardboard container with a perforated top and suggested that the cheese be served as a topping for spaghetti with tomato sauce. Spaghetti sales outnumbered those of egg noodles and ran a strong second in popularity to elbow macaroni, called simply macaroni, which was already conventional in salads.

spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti and Meatballs

The promotional efforts worked and annual per capita consumption of pasta went from near zero in 1920 to 3¾  pounds by the end of the decade (as compared with fifty pounds in Italy). Restaurants accounted for much of this rise. Cafeterias, which became extremely popular in the twenties, served a great deal of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Italians all over the country opened “spaghetti houses” that served spaghetti and meatballs (purely an Italian American creation) to blue-collar workers. By the end of the twenties Italian restaurants had become the most popular ethnic restaurants in American cities, a lead they now hold nationwide. The Depression made spaghetti less an option than a necessity, and spaghetti and meatballs began appearing regularly on millions of American tables. ( Source: July 1986 ATLANTIC MAGAZINE)

In the mood for some real Italian spaghetti, try these recipes:

Spaghetti with Sausage and Simple Tomato Sauce                                                                                                                

Yield:  4 servings (serving size: 1 1/4 cups)

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces hot Italian pork or turkey sausage links
  • 8 ounces uncooked spaghetti
  • 1 (28-ounce) container Pomi chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup torn fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:
1. Preheat broiler.
2. Arrange sausage on a small baking sheet. Broil sausage 5 minutes on each side. Remove pan from oven (do not turn broiler off). Cut sausage into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange slices in a single layer on the baking sheet. Broil sausage slices 2 minutes on each side or until browned.
3. Cook pasta according to package directions; drain.
4. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add crushed red pepper and minced garlic; sauté 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, sugar, and salt; cook 4 minutes or until slightly thick. Add sausage and cooked pasta to pan; toss well. Top with fresh basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Sautéed Chicken with Pesto Spaghetti                                                                                                     

4 Servings

Ingredients:

Directions:

1. Make the pesto if using homemade.
2. Trim the chicken breasts. If very thick, slice in half lengthwise to create two thin cutlets. Dredge the chicken in the flour.
3. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium high heat until melted.  Add in the chicken and sauté until browned on each side and almost cooked through – about 3 – 5 minutes per side. (Do not move them until you are ready to turn them – let them caramelize.) Place chicken on a plate and set aside.
4. Add the white wine to the pan and simmer for a few minutes to deglaze. Lower the heat. Add in the stock and simmer for a few minutes.  Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Return the chicken and any juices to the pan and allow to simmer until cooked through.
5. Meanwhile, bring salted water to boil in a large pasta pot.  Add pasta and cook according to package directions until ‘al dente’. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain pasta.
6. Return pasta to the pot in which it was cooked.  Remove chicken from the sauté pan to a plate. Pour the sauce from the sautéed chicken over the pasta.  Reserve 1/4 cup of the pesto and add the remaining to the pasta.  Stir to incorporate. If dry, add in as much pasta water as needed.
7. Arrange the pasta on a warmed serving plate.  Arrange the chicken over the pasta and top with the reserved pesto.

Spaghetti with Shrimp, Scallops, and Clams                                                                                                 

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 fresh red chili, seeded and finely chopped or 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 pound fresh clams, scrubbed and rinsed well 
  • 1/2 pound. fresh scallops, cut small
  • 1/2 pound fresh raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, to serve

Directions:

1.  Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat and sweat the garlic and chili for a few minutes until soft. Add the wine to the pan. Tap the clams on the work surface and discard any that do not close.  Add the clams and scallops to the pan and continue to sweat, taking care that the garlic and chili do not burn. As soon as the clams open (discard any that do not), remove the clams and scallops to a plate and set aside. Add the shrimp to the same pan and saute over medium-high heat for a few minutes until they turn lightly pink. Return the clams and scallops to the pan.  Season with salt and a little black pepper, and toss briefly to heat through.
2.  Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and add to the sauce with a tiny amount of the cooking water (just enough to keep the pasta moist). Stir well, transfer to a large serving bowl or individual pasta bowls, and sprinkle with lots of chopped parsley.

Note
How to clean clams:
Scrub the clams well under cold running water to wash away any grit. Put the clams in a large bowl of salted water making sure they are well covered with water (but do not cover the bowl). Soak in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or even overnight – any grit or sand will be left behind in the bottom of the bowl when you remove the clams. Pick out the clams by hand and rinse in plenty of fresh cold water.

Whole Wheat Spaghetti With Artichokes And Ricotta                                                                                                       

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 package frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 pound whole wheat spaghetti
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • Freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and as soon as it starts to sizzle, add the artichokes and lemon juice. Add 1/4 cup water, cover the pan, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the artichokes are tender.

Cook the spaghetti according to the package directions until al dente.

Meanwhile, whisk the ricotta, lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water together in a large pasta bowl until creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley.

Reserve about 1/2 cup pasta water and drain the pasta. Add it to the pasta bowl with the ricotta and toss to coat the pasta. If necessary, add a little hot pasta water to attain a creamy consistency. Add the artichokes and toss again. Serve immediately with generous amounts of grated Parmesan.

Spaghetti With Fresh Veggies                                                                                                                     

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 16 thin stalks fresh asparagus (or any fresh green vegetable in season)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced or minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 6 medium plum (Roma) tomatoes, seeded and chopped (2 1/4 cups)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter*
  • 3/4 pound of spaghetti 
  • 1/4 cup shredded fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup fat free half

Directions:

Trim asparagus. Remove tips; set aside. Bias-slice asparagus stalks into 1 1/2-inch pieces; set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add tomatoes and cook about 2 minutes, stirring often.

Add asparagus stalks, wine, and salt. Cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Add asparagus tips; cook uncovered, for 1 minutes. Add butter; stir till melted.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta. Return to pan and toss with asparagus mixture, half and half and basil.

Note: The butter is used in this recipe to bind the sauce. Margarine might not be an effective substitute.


Zucchini

Bell Pepper

Eggplant

Tomato

Bell Peppers, eggplants, zucchini, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes are the vegetables usually used for stuffing. As I looked through my cookbooks, every one of them has a different version of how to stuff a vegetable.  I am sure that in any culture where there is an abundance of farm raised crops, home cooks try to figure out how to utilize the produce and make dishes that have variety, as well as appeal.

As a child, I remember my mother making stuffed green peppers, regularly, because my father liked them. I wasn’t fond of them and I don’t think my siblings were either. Since I am not overly fond of green bell peppers, that was strike one. They were always made with ground beef, rice and tomato sauce. As an adult my tastes for different vegetables improved and, because my husband would often ask for stuffed peppers, I began experimenting with recipes for different fillings and vegetables that we eventually liked.

I still have my mother’s recipe written down on a recipe file card.  It is fading, but still readable. This was pretty much my mother’s way to make

Stuffed Green Peppers:

  • 6 large green peppers
  • 1-1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1/2 of a small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 15 oz can tomato sauce
  • 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Directions
Cut off the top of the peppers and remove the seeds and membranes.
Cook peppers in enough boiling water to cover for 5 minutes and then drain.
Cook ground beef, onion, and garlic and then drain off fat.
Stir in rice, salt, and half the tomato sauce.  Heat through.
Stuff each pepper with beef mixture and stand upright in an ungreased square baking dish.
Pour remaining tomato sauce over the tops.
Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees F.  Remove from the oven and uncover dish.
Sprinkle with cheese and bake an additional 15 minutes.
4333946845_0f2a3a9796

Stuffed Red Peppers

As in the recipe above, many recipes for stuffed vegetables call for boiling the vegetable before stuffing.  I don’t do this because this step makes the vegetables soggy and they will spend the better part of an hour in the oven. Also, I feel the vegetables lose nutrients when boiled.

The recipes for fillings I am including here can be used in any vegetable of your choice and there are both meat versions and vegetarian versions.

Preparations of the vegetables before stuffing will vary.

Ingredients

  • 6 medium red peppers
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1-1/2 pounds lean ground turkey breast or lean ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1-8 oz package shredded Italian mixed blended cheeses
  • 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 cup Progresso Italian bread crumbs

Directions

Cut peppers in half lengthwise and discard seeds.

In a large skillet, saute onion in oil until tender.

Add the turkey, Italian seasoning, garlic, salt and pepper; cook and stir over medium heat until meat is no longer pink.

Transfer to a bowl; stir in half the cheese, the chopped tomatoes and bread crumbs. Spoon into pepper halves.

Place in a large baking pan coated with cooking spray.

Bake, uncovered, at 325° F for 40 minutes or until peppers are tender.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Return to the oven and heat, uncovered, until cheese is melted.

 Yield: 6 servings.

Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cooked couscous, farro or barley (This would also be a good place to use leftover risotto.)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup prepared basil pesto 
  • 3 large yellow or orange peppers, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
  • 2 cups homemade tomato sauce 
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Grated Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh basil leaves for garnish
Directions
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a casserole dish (with lid or you can use foil) with cooking spray and large enough to accommodate all of the peppers.
Combine the couscous or farro or rice and pesto. Stir together. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt and if needed.
Fill the halved peppers with this mixture, and arrange in the casserole. Pour the tomato sauce over the peppers.
Cover and bake 45 minutes to an hour or until the peppers are soft but still hold their shape.
Remove from the heat, and serve with some of the tomato sauce spooned over the top.
Sprinkle the tops of the peppers with cheese and garnish with basil leaves.
images

Stuffed Zucchini or Eggplant

 Ingredients
4 medium to large zucchini or 2 medium eggplant

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 pound ground lean turkey or beef
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, diced
  • 4 ounces of mushrooms, chopped
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 2 seeded and diced plum tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1 egg, beaten or 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
 
Directions

Cut the zucchini or eggplant in half lengthwise. Using a melon baller or small spoon, scoop out the flesh from the inside of the zucchini or eggplant. The shells should be about 1/4 inch thick. Be careful not to pierce the shell. Reserve and dice the flesh that has been scooped out.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat until hot. Add the ground meat and sauté until lightly browned, stirring occasionally – about 8  minutes. Remove the meat to a bowl.
Using the same skillet, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add in the chopped mushrooms and reserved chopped zucchini flesh. Sauté until tender – about another 5 minutes. Add the ground meat back into the skillet.
Add the wine and diced tomato. Sauté until tomato is soft and heated through. Stir in the pine nuts. Remove from the heat and allow to cool before adding the egg.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  
When the mixture has cooled, stir in egg or egg substitute, Parmigiano, basil, parsley, salt and pepper. Fill the zucchini or eggplant halves with the mixture.  
Arrange the stuffed zucchini or eggplant in a greased 13x9x2 baking dish. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs.  Pour about 1/4 inch of water in the bottom of the baking dish. Place in the oven.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until the filling is golden brown and the vegetables are tender.

Vegetarian stuffed tomatoes or zucchini make excellent side dishes.

images (1)

Stuffed Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 4 large tomatoes – a thin slice cut from the top and the insides scooped out and reserved
  • 1 cup cooked farro or rice or barley
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped plus extra for garnish
  • 1/2 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated plus 2 tablespoons for topping
 
Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Place olive oil, onion and garlic in a large saute pan over medium heat, and saute until onion is soft but not browned – about 5 minutes.
Add tomato insides, parsley, basil, oregano and simmer another few minutes until thoroughly heated – about 2 to 3 minutes.
Add cooked grain of choice and the 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Fill tomatoes with stuffing until overfilled and top with  the additional grated cheese.
Place in  an oiled baking dish, and bake until cheese begins to melt and the filling browns – about 20 minutes.
Garnish with basil leaves.

Spinach Stuffed Zucchini or Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 4 large summer squash or zucchini or 6 medium tomatoes with top cut off and the insides discarded
  • 2 (10 oz) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 oz  low-fat cream cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon  pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Directions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Cut squash lengthwise in half  and remove some of the center flesh to make room for the filling and place in a  greased 9 x 13 pan. If using tomatoes, cut off a thin layer from the top and scoop out the insides.
Heat oil and saute onions and garlic over medium heat until soft. Add spinach, cream cheese, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes, stirring until cheese is melted and everything is heated through. Spoon evenly into shells, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs.
Bake the squash for 30 minutes and the tomatoes for 20 minutes. Larger squash may take an additional 10 minutes or more. Test the side with a knife to see if tender.


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