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Checking through the nearly 90 recipes scheduled for my new cookbook, I found I’d missed a good vegetarian pasta sauce, which is curious because I’ll often throw together a great marinara for a solitary meal.

In October I put myself in self imposed isolation in Yorkshire for three reasons. One—it’s the UK law that I had to quarantine for two weeks after arriving; two—I was determined to finish the cookbook by the end of the month; and three—I’d had the treatment for a screenplay accepted and I had to add all the tiresome details, like character arc, and scenes, and dialogue. Four weeks in our little cottage in Yorkshire seemed like a good idea.

thorpe salvin kithen

My galley kitchen in Yorkshire

My middle daughter, who fortuitously lives in England, on the edge of the lovely Cotswolds, arranged to visit the cottage a few days before I arrived and stocked up the fridge with M&S curries and other single meal staples in which I’m quite happy to indulge. But I still needed to cook single meals for myself at least half the week, so pasta rules. I asked for a selection ranging from penne to fusilli, though they’re all taste the same really. I just enjoy different textures if I’m going to eat pasta regularly and the wide variety of shapes can be fun too. And it’s the same story with the sauces.

The sauces I make for myself are all in the same style of Italian vegetarian cooking called cucina povera (literally poor kitchen) from which have come some great world favourites, including pizza.

Many of these sauces start with a similar base.

In Market to Table: The Cookbook I wrote:

A mirepoix in French cuisine is chopped, or julienned, vegetables, usually a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery. The traditional ratio is two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery. It is named after Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix, who lived from 1699 to 1757, the nob employer of the cook credited with creating it.

The Italian version of mirepoix is called soffritto, which means ‘underfried’ and describes a preparation of lightly browned chopped vegetables, not a dish by itself. It starts with battuto, finely chopping or even mincing the vegetables. Hence, soffritto is a simple combination of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery, slowly and gently cooked in a little extra virgin olive oil until softened, when all the brilliant flavours are released. It’s distinct from the Spanish sofrito, which may include garlic, peppers, tomato sauce and spices.

Because I like the additional flavour enhancement, I usually add crushed and finely chopped garlic to the mix. Then it’s a simple matter to build the sauce, usually with tomatoes and often with herbs such as parsley, basil and oregano. More tomatoes tends towards a marinara sauce (named for the mariners who brought tomatoes to Italy from the New World), less tomatoes, plus the addition of a sweet red pepper and some hot pepper flakes makes into another Italian staple: sugo finto (which means ‘fake sauce,’ or a meat sauce without the meat). To further enhance the meatless notion, I sometimes top the dish with chunky mushrooms, quickly sautéed at the last minute. And, of course, Parmigiano-Reggiano grated all over the sauce and a final garnish of chopped parsley. Here then is my take on ‘fake’ sauce .

Sugo finto (fake sauce) with fusilli

Shopping list

FUSILLI 1

Fusilli with vegetarian sauce

Soffrito

  • 5 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
  • EVOO

Sauce

  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 sweet red bell pepper, deseeded, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (more or less, depending on  your taste)
  • 1 5 1/2 fl oz / 156 ml can tomato paste
  • 1 glass red wine
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • ½ cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 TBSP fresh oregano, chopped
  • EVOO
  • Salt and pepper

Garnish

  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, cleaned, roughly chopped or torn (optional)
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Pasta

  • ½ cup per person, fusilli holds the sauce well

Preparation and cooking

  1. Prepare, clean, peel and chop all the vegetables: after chopping the holy trinity for soffritto (onions, carrots and celery) chop them again more finely. Separately peel and chop the garlic; remove the stem from the tomatoes, chop; remove the stem, seeds and all internal pith from the pepper, chop; wash and chop the fresh basil and oregano leaves, removing all stalks. Set aside.
  2. In a large thick bottomed saucepan, heat some EVOO and fry the chopped onions, carrots and celery until they are soft. Add the garlic and fry until soft. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and fry briefly. Add the tomatoes and sweet pepper and cook until soft. Deglaze the pan with wine and cook until it evaporates. Now stir in the tomato paste until it is well mixed. Add the vegetable stock, mix all the ingredients, making sure nothing is stuck to the bottom and bring almost to a boil. Turn down the heat to a low simmer and add basil and oregano. Simmer on very low heat for at least 1 hr, stirring occasionally. Now check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. Don’t be surprised if none are necessary.
  3. While the sauce is slowly becoming more and more flavourful, prep the items for garnish: wipe the mushrooms down with a paper towel to remove any growing medium, rather than washing; wash and chop the parsley.
  4. Once the sauce has simmered long enough (NOTE: It’s even better the next day), bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for about 8 to 12 mins, depending on how al dente you like it. Rinse the pasta with boiling water through a colander and return to the empty pot. Add a few drops of EVOO to keep the pasta pieces separate.
  5. OPTION: About 5 mins before serving, lightly pan fry some interesting mushrooms in hot EVOO, wild mushrooms of various sorts if they are in season; or reconstituted dried wild mushrooms; or quartered cremini. Drain on a kitchen towel and set aside.
  6. Plate the pasta in warmed bowls. Ladle on the sauce generously; grate on plenty of cheese; sprinkle a little parsley. Serve at once.
FUSILLI 2

Featured image: A plate of twisty fusilli with delicious sugo finto

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This is Nigel’s 295th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

And please check out his new cooking videos— Episode 1: Fruit parfait, Episode 2: Eggs Benny or Episode 3: Baked Whitefish, the first three of an occasional series, or watch them on YouTube.

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