Basic rotini and tomato sauce (with a shout-out to the iconic Sonoran Dog)
Yesterday evening, still tired from our weekend trip to Tucson and with few ingredients in-house, we made a basic rotini and tomato sauce for dinner. This is one of our fallback meals when we haven’t thought ahead about the night’s dinner, because all the ingredients keep for a long time and can be squirreled away for a rainy day. But just because the ingredients don’t include fresh meats and veggies doesn’t mean the dish has to be boring – pasta in tomato sauce can be made many different ways, according to your tastes and your pantry.
The pasta is easy enough – boil some water and follow the directions on the box. We used rotini, because its twists hold sauce well, but you could make this with any shape. While the water is boiling, start the sauce. For one pound of pasta, I’ve found that a 14-ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (depending on whether you like chunky or smooth sauce) and a 6-ounce can of tomato paste produce a perfect amount of sauce. First, dice 2-3 cloves of garlic and prepare your meat. Last night we used some hot Italian turkey sausage that we had in the freezer, but this recipe also works well with pork, chicken, or kielbasa. If using raw sausage (not including kielbasa), slice open the casing and squeeze the meat out into chunks; for other types of meat dice into 1-inch cubes.
Sauté the garlic and meat in a tablespoon or two of olive oil on medium-high heat until the meat is browned (but not cooked through – if you wait this long, the garlic will burn). Once the meat is browned, add your spices and the 6-ounce can of tomato paste. We used fresh oregano and basil and dried red pepper flakes, but a variety of different spices work well here, depending on what you have in the house and what you like. Mix all the chunks – garlic, meat, and spices – into the tomato paste and stir while cooking for a few minutes. Cooking the tomato paste without liquid in the pan caramelizes some of the tomato and will give the sauce a far richer and more complex flavor than simply adding the paste to the liquid sauce. When you smell roasted tomato (2-3 minutes), add your diced or crushed tomatoes. Add a tablespoon or so of sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer the sauce until the pasta is done (ideally at least 10-15 minutes).
We ate our rotini and sauce with grissini that my lovely wife had made ahead, adding rosemary to the dough in place of juniper berries. Definitely not necessary, but a gourmet touch that really added to the presentation. Sprinkle a little shredded parm on top, and you have a bowl full of delicious.
A gastronomic addendum: over the weekend we were in Tucson, Arizona, my first visit there since the early 90s. While there, we sampled a Sonoran Dog, one of the local specialties. Definitely not for the faint of heart, it consists of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled, then smothered in a bun with beans, tomatoes, onions, and cheese and drizzled with mayo. Sonoran Dogs are so decadent that they’ve been featured on the pig-out show Man vs. Food.
Although probably not the thing to eat before a four-hour plane flight (live and learn), the taste was so amazing that I was craving one the next morning. With a little Googling I found that, although mostly confined to the Tucson area, these delicacies are available at Big Star in Chicago, a 15 minute walk from my house! Dangerous news. Hopefully I’ll soon provide you with a review of Big Star’s take on these things, but for now my left arm is getting too tingly to type more.