Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pasta with a twist

I know, I know. Pasta can be so freaking boring and so a reminder of the bygone college and post-college days as the dish one made because they didn't have anything else to make or lacked imagination to do something creative or didn't have time.

I partly blame the ugh factor to companies like Ragu and Prego. The ingredients they list are fine but I think because their first ingredient is tomato puree rather than crushed tomatoes is the reason why the ugh factor has crept in. Also, I think these companies try too hard -- they put in too many herbs and a bit of this and that, and it really just spoils it altogether. But I have discovered pasta need not be this way.

I was tooling around and searched "penne bake." I found a recipe that was my inspiration, modified and made my own. I really adore this recipe because it is so simple and can be made into two similar but different dishes (notice a theme).

I also love this dish because I add some kick to it with the addition of 1/4 to 1/2 tsp red chili pepper flakes. Red chili pepper flakes and tomatoes are like peas in a pod -- they are meant to be together. Personally, I think pasta sauce in general can be blagh and bland but the addition of the flakes gives it a nice little kick that rounds out the flavor. It's not overwhelming at all but your mouth and taste buds will thank you.

Instead of using the typical Ragu or Prego, I use the Pomi brand marinara sauce whose first ingredient is crushed tomatoes, not tomato puree. Pomi is the next best thing to fresh tomato marinara and is certainly the best marinara coming out of a box or can. It is a product of Italy and not much more expensive then a Ragu or Prego. I think this along with a can of diced tomatoes is so much nicer than anything you can get out a bottle.

Makes 6 servings
Cooking time: 20 minutes for simple pasta, 45 minutes for baked pasta

-12 ounces of your favorite pasta
-1 cup finely chopped onions
-1 tbsp olive oil
-1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes (salted)
-1 Pomi marinara sauce (26.5 ounces)
-1/4 tsp red chili pepper flakes
-2 cloves of garlic finely minced
-1 cup part-skim mozzarella

Cook pasta and drain. In large pan, heat oil on medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and chili pepper flakes. Saute until onions are translucent, about five minutes. This is the base layer and it's really important that the onions and garlic cook so that the flavors shine through. To this, you could potentially add mushrooms or whatever else you want. Add diced tomatoes and Pomi marinara. Cover, and heat through for 10 minutes. I think it is really important to take the time to heat the sauce to let the flavors pop.

If you don't have a lot of time, stop here and toss the pasta, the sauce, and cheese together. Some people prefer to sprinkle the cheese on top. You choose. Serve. This is simply delicious and takes 20 minutes.

If you have more time, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss sauce with sauce and place into 9x13 inch baking dish. Sprinkle top with mozzarella. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes or until cheese melts.

The first time I made this recipe, I used penne and I baked it because there is nothing like biting into penne with the cheese oozing out of it. For more of an ooze, you may need to add 2 cups (total) mozzarella. The inspiration recipe calls for it but because I am fat conscious, I cut it in half to one cup. Being the anxious cook that I am, I repeatedly opened the oven to make sure the pasta wasn't drying out so I missed on the baked crispy effect. Nevertheless, it was deliciosa. The first time I made this, I used three-quarters of the Pomi Marinara but I recommend dumping the whole container so that the pasta does not dry out.

Tonight, I used little shells and I didn't bake it. I stopped after preparing the sauce and tossed with the sauce. Then I served in bowls topped with a little shredded parm. Also, terrific.

As a friend of mine used to say, "I don't like that Raghu spaghetti sauce you're dating." I took her advice and pass it on to you. Dump the Ragu.

This recipe is dedicated to my friend Lauree, with love.

Bon Ap!


MKT said...

This dish definitely takes the "past" out of the "pasta!" It's really good either way, but the baking I feel adds that nice crispy "I'm eating a real meal" dimension to this dish.

Meryl said...

Definitely agree about the Ragu and Prego. Our main complaint is the added sugar: makes it so much junkier-tasting. We like Barilla. Add some spices and maybe summer squash, and it's better than you'll get in most restaurants.