Blue Kitchen: Playing with your food

by Terry B on November 15, 2006

Campanelle with Sausage and Red Bell Pepper proves what a blank canvas and invitation to improvise pasta can be. Recipe below.

Sometimes a cookbook can greatly influence how you cook, even if you never make a single recipe from it. We had a pasta cookbook around the house for years and finally got rid of it in one of our periodic purges when we realized we never used it. Ever. But the author said something in the introduction that completely changed the way I thought about pasta, so it wasn’t money wasted, as far as I was concerned.

His family lived in Italy for a year when he was a boy. Their housekeeper made pasta at least once a day, every day, for that year. In that time, she never made what many of us think of as the classic Italian pasta with red sauce, not once. And she never repeated herself.

When I got over being stunned and amazed by this feat—and it wasn’t a blinding flash of inspiration, but rather a long process of seeing various recipes in various sources, perusing menus in Italian restaurants and, finally, just facing ingredients on hand in my own kitchen—I realized that pasta can be like the perfect basic jazz melody that invites countless amazing improvisations.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good red sauce. It’s just that there are so many other more interesting things to be done with pasta. There are various cream sauces, for instance, and dishes that involve baking the pasta. I’ll save those for another day. Today I’m going to cover a breathtakingly simple technique that will give you all the room in the world to improvise and create your own wonderful meal.

Start with some produce—what you have around the house, what looks good at the market, what you have a hankering for, whatever. Bell peppers, zucchini, onions, garlic, asparagus, broccoli, olives, cauliflower, tomatoes [fresh or canned]—whatever sounds good to you and sounds good together. Fewer is better than many, including just one or two. Next, decide if you want some animal protein in your dish—chicken breasts, various sausages, some veal or pork are all good choices, as is shrimp. Chop, slice or mince the various ingredients, whatever makes sense. Herbs [fresh or dried, depending on the season, what you're making, what you have on hand, etcetera] are another source of improvisation. To get a sense of what works where, just flip through an Italian cookbook and see what herbs they use and in what ways.

You’ve done the hard part, deciding on and prepping your ingredients. Now comes the easy part—cooking them. Bring some water to a boil. Cook some pasta in it according to package instructions. Meanwhile, sauté your ingredients in some olive oil, adding them in the order that makes sense for the time it would take them to cook. Drain the pasta and toss it with the vegetables, meat [if you're using any] and olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste and grate some cheese over it, if you like [parmesan and romano are good choices]. Done.

Okay, for all three of you who haven’t stopped reading in disgust over my overly simplified, way too vague directions, here’s an actual recipe that I improvised this past the weekend, with actual ingredients, amounts and cooking times. But the point of the above diatribe is just to say experiment. Improvise. Play with your food. Pasta is the perfect playground.

Campanelle with Sausage and Red Bell Pepper
Serves 2 [can be doubled—see Kitchen Notes]

1/2 pound Italian sausage, hot or mild [sweet]
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 red bell pepper, cut into largish bites
1 medium yellow onion, sliced into largish pieces
1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

6 ounces Campanelle pasta, roughly 1/3 of a 1-pound package [see Kitchen notes]
Grated parmesan or romano cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Meanwhile, slice open sausage casing, remove sausage from skin and pull into bite-sized chunks. When pasta water is boiling, salt it generously and add pasta. As pasta boils, stir frequently, especially at first, to keep it from clumping together. Heat a large deep skillet over medium flame, about 1-1/2 minutes or until rim of pan is hot to a quick, gingerly touch. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and brown sausage, stirring occasionally, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer sausage to plate with slotted spoon. Pour off fat, but don’t wipe skillet clean.

Add remaining olive oil and bell pepper and onion to pan, along with oregano. Smells great, doesn’t it? Sauté vegetables, stirring often so they don’t brown or burn. Return sausage to pan and continue to cook, stirring often. Unlike red sauce, which should cook long enough for all the flavors to blend, the pepper and onion shouldn’t cook for more than 5 to 7 minutes. That way they retain a little crispness and their individual tastes.

Turn off skillet and drain pasta. Don’t rinse it—the olive oil from the sauce will prevent it from sticking together. Add pasta to skillet and toss. When adding pasta to a dish like this one, I always start by adding about two-thirds of the cooked pasta and tossing it with the sauce. Then add more pasta little by little until you achieve a good balance. Sometimes, I cook too much pasta, and it’s easy for the other ingredients to become overwhelmed. Once you achieve what looks like the right mix, just toss the rest of the pasta; pasta is cheap. With this recipe, though, 6 ounces of dry pasta seemed to be the right amount.

Taste and adjust the seasonings. Divide pasta between two plates and grate a little cheese over it. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Doubling the recipe. This is mostly straightforward—double everything, EXCEPT the oregano. This herb can overpower a dish pretty quickly—I’d probably just up this to 2 teaspoons, not double it.

Campanelle. I happen to like the shape of this pretty pasta and its poetic name—it’s Italian for little bell. But any smallish, sturdy pasta will do: Rotini, farfalle [bow tie] or penne, for instance. You want the pasta to match the scale of the chunky bites of meat, pepper and onion.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Patti S. November 15, 2006 at 10:44 pm

Hi-got your website from your friend Kate W. I, too, love pasta and am amazed that you can make it everyday and it can be a different dish. I’ve seen Molto Mario and he explained briefly that each pasta has it’s own appropriate sauce; i.e., the sauce clings to the pasta in a different manner so that you get the right ratio of sauce to pasta. That”s something I’d like to see written down–although it would be an immense labor of love (as there are so many pasta shapes & sauces). Congratulations on your website. It looks great and so far … I’ve enjoyed your writing and your love of food.

liz November 15, 2006 at 11:12 pm

mark bittman has about nine million variations on sauce in “how to cook everything,” which is a great resource, btw.

besides sauteeing vegetables and meat, you can also cook the pasta in stock and then dress the pasta in oil or butter and herbs with cheese. i have pureed roasted pumpkin with onion and sage and served over pasta, and also done pumpkin with curry (no cheese). pureed roasted red peppers would be fun. right now i’m eating pasta with a puree of roasted cauliflower, a bit of garlic, some parm, and a splash of milk. YUM.

one thing i sometimes do is take a favorite soup recipe and just make it with a lot less liquid. lentils and sausage over pasta is divine.

Natalia November 16, 2006 at 10:59 pm

You are totally right! There are so many different things to be done with pasta that it should never get boring. I know I could (and often do) eat it every day.

Terry B November 17, 2006 at 4:13 am

Patti S.—Funny you should mention the right sauce for the right pasta. Nicky just talked about that in an entry called Orecchiette in her blog Delicious Days at deliciousdays[dot]com.

liz—I love Mark Bittman [he writes The Minimalist food column for the New York Times]! I am very much a minimalist at heart. And at the truly minimalist end of the scale pastawise is cooking a good quality pasta and tossing it with garlic sautéed in olive oil and/or butter, then topping it with good quality fresh grated parmesan. Brainlessly simple and far more delicious than it has any right to be.

Natalia—Calvin Trillin said something funny once about eating the same thing every day. He and his now sadly departed wife used to eat out a lot [ah, the tough life of the professional food writer]. One night, they were trying to figure out where to go. He suggested a Chinese place they loved, but his wife reminded him they’d had Chinese only a couple of nights before, adding, “You can’t eat Chinese every night.” To which he said, “The Chinese do.”

Cara November 17, 2006 at 2:14 pm

Terry – love the blue and white plate! At our house penne rules, every which way and the current favorite is parmesan, edamame and drizzled good olive oil

Carolyn November 17, 2006 at 3:14 pm

So far I’ve read “stunned,” “amzed,” “flash of insight” “jazz melody” along with words like wonderful, perfect, and pasta. Your hands may be fashioning and photographing a perfect meal, but your beautiful writing style is nourishing your readers’ spirits. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful blog.

Carol Wallwork November 30, 2006 at 9:22 pm

Hi Terry
Campanelle with Sausage and Red Bell Pepper is fabulous–I think you forgot to mention how colorful it is too.

It’s easy, great for an autumnal get-to-gether meal with friends and oddly fun to prepare. I never thought outside the box/sausage casing before. I feel as if I’m part of an esoteric meat guild now.

The only problem has been where to find the campanelle pasta in the Washington, DC area? Not at Whole Foods, or speciality Italian delis altho I haven’t tried William Sonoma yet.

I love Blue Kitchen!
Carol, Centreville, VA

Amber October 16, 2007 at 4:56 pm

Hiya
ii love this pasta, i used exactly your ingrediants and it was gawjuss!
xx

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