During this frenetic and festive holiday season, it is helpful to have a well-stocked pantry to quickly feed the family without sacrificing flavor or nutrition. If you have a can of plum tomatoes, garlic and olive oil you can cook up a tomato sauce in 15 minutes. If you have fresh or dried rosemary and balsamic vinegar, that 15-minute tomato sauce elevates into a herby infused wonderland. There is no need to call for pizza delivery, tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce mixed in with steaming bowl of penne pasta is quick, easy to make, and will warm you up on these brisk fall nights.
Tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce is a throwback and staple recipe of mine. I used to make it a lot during the early years of my marriage for my growing family. Some recipes are timeless and will never feel out-of-place no matter how many years have passed. Tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce is such a recipe. It is a special classic.
I discovered it in a cookbook of mine, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen by Marcella Hazandating back to 1986. Marcella Hazan is one of my cookbook authors who I attribute to teaching me about real Italian cooking. While I read and cooked through her cookbooks, I learned how simple, but not simplistic, Italian cooking is. Using only a few key ingredients and traditional techniques, it is easy to create a fresh tasting, delicious and satisfying meal. Of course there are those traditional meals that take hours to make, but most of the food I relied on, could be prepared in 30 – 40 minutes. Many of Marcella’s pasta recipes became family favorites that over time would develop into our own.
This recipe first caught my attention because of the added balsamic vinegar and rosemary was unlike any tomato sauce I had before. From this recipe I learned about adding vinegar to a sauce or stew to brighten up the flavor of the food. Up until that time I had only used vinegar for salad dressing. I loved the additional body and bright flavor the vinegar brought out in stews and sauces, and I continue to season with vinegar in several of my other recipes.
I can hear the motors gearing up as people get ready to travel for a long weekend summer vacation. The car is packed with bikes, kayaks, towels, swim-gear, boogie boards, camping equipment, and overflowing with 12 changes of clothes per person for three days, because you never know what the weather will bring. Labor Day is here and people are anticipating a fun weekend full of playtime with family and friends for a last summer hurrah.
With all of this great activity in the summer’s sun, you are going to want to make food that will not take up a lot of your play time, needs to be nourishing, and taste as bright and delightful as your weekend vacation. My solution is Garden Vegetable Pasta Salad, loaded with fresh vegetables, cured olives, creamy cheese and fresh herbs. It is a light and refreshing pasta salad that will satiate your hunger and cravings and use up a lot of vegetables that you purchased at the farmer’s market, or picked from your own garden. The bonus is, this pasta salad recipe won’t take up a lot of your play time to prepare.
Do you know that feeling you get when the family or friends are together and all is good with the world? It can happen spontaneously by a simple gesture or after a big heartfelt moment. I treasure those moments, the feeling of complete satisfaction and joy. Peace. At those times the little things do add up and are greatly appreciated. A simple “Thank you”, carries a generous gratitude, “You are doing a great job”, gives a small boost of confidence, “I am here”, builds reassurance that you are not alone. Even a home cooked meal creates a time and place to gather family and or friends together, and can reinforce all the above.
I know it sounds cliché, but in our home that moment and feeling would happen when we served pasta for dinner. When pasta was on the table, everyone was happy. A pasta dinner satisfied all taste and food preferences in the family. There were no protests at dinner, even if it did include an ingredient that was not a particular favorite. That offending food would be pushed aside and everything else would be devoured without complaint. When the, “… What?… Why? …Really?…Again? …I hate that,” for dinner drama was not a focal point of the evening, the five of us would be relaxed, the conversation would flow, jokes told, and all was right with the world.
When I would combine two favorite foods in one meal, that would make the evening a special occasion. My children love ham almost as much as they love pasta. Pasta with ham and peas would satisfy two cravings, and even some of the peas would be eaten. It is one of the meals and recipes most frequently requested by my sons. Now that they are independent, they enjoy cooking this meal for their friends and significant others. My oldest son claims that it was this meal that jump-started his relationship with the girl of his dreams. That loving couple is recently happily married, so you never know where a home cooked pasta dinner will lead.
When it’s pasta for dinner, all is right with the world.
Pasta with ham and spring vegetables is a very versatile meal and one that I adapt frequently. The base of this recipe is pasta with ham, cream and peas, but the asparagus is so good this time of year that I wanted to include it. I have been really enjoying asparagus with leeks and tarragon so I omitted the cream to focus on the spring vegetables and ham. If you are interested in using cream add about a 1/2 cup or less to the sauce around the time you add the ham and peas.
The spring vegetable and tarragon combination is a melody of its own, and would be a delicious vegetarian option without the ham.
As with a lot of pasta meals, recipes are guidelines and can be adapted based on what odd and ends of vegetables are in the frig calling out to be used. Enjoy!
1 lb pasta, penne, farfalle or fusilli are great choices
12 oz cured ham, sliced in strips 1 inch by 1/4 inch
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen peas
1 to 2 lbs of asparagus
1 small leek, cleaned and white and light green parts sliced thin
1/2 cup vegetable broth, preferably homemade or low salt store bought
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
3 garlic cloves,minced
2 Tbls chopped fresh tarragon, plus one sprig of tarragon
1 Tb olive oil
1-2 Tb butter
Prep all ingredients before you begin cooking.
Clean and cut off the woody end of each asparagus spear. Hold onto to each end of an asparagus spear and bend it bringing both ends together. Where it snaps off, the bottom portion is the woody tip, discard. Cut the remainder of the asparagus spears into thirds.
Peel the garlic and remove the green germ (sprout of a new garlic plant), then mince the garlic,
Slice the ham to even strips shorter than the asparagus.
Fill a 5 qt stock pot halfway to three quarters full with fresh water. Set the stock pot with the water on a burner and turn the heat to high. Bring the water to a rapid boil and cook pasta according to the directions on the back of the pasta box.
Reserve some of the pasta cooking water when finished cooking.
Make the spring vegetable and ham sauce.
Begin preparing the sauce while you are waiting for the water to boil. Melt 1 Tbl olive oil and 1 Tbl butter in a large 12-inch skillet, or sauté pan. Once the butter has melted add the leeks and garlic to the pan. Add a small pinch of Kosher salt and sauté stirring lightly. Add the prepared asparagus and tarragon spear to the leeks and briefly sauté. Add about 1/2 cup vegetable broth, cover the pan, and braise the vegetables on medium heat for about 5 minutes. The asparagus will not be completely cooked through at this point. You want them to still be crisp with some liquid in the pan. Take the top off the skillet and add the sliced ham and peas. Continue cooking the vegetable and ham mixture at a low simmer, uncovered. This should be around 3-5 minutes before the pasta is done. You are just warming up the ham and peas since they are already cooked.
Putting it all together
Once the pasta is done, turn off the heat, scoop out some pasta cooking water and set aside, and drain out the water through a strainer. Return the pasta to the pot on the stove. Add the grated cheese and a small amount of the pasta water, start with about 1/4 cup or less, to the pasta and stir until the cheese is melted and everything is evenly distributed. Add the vegetable and ham sauce, minced tarragon, and 1 Tb of butter or olive oil to he pasta. Stir until mixed through.
Serve immediately with grated cheese and fresh ground black pepper on the side.
1.It is hard to mess up with pasta, with the exception of overcooking it. Over cooked pasta is mushy and miserable. Use the back of the box as a guideline for cooking time and begin tasting a couple of minutes before the recommended total cooking time. Cook the pasta al dente. There will still be a firm texture, but not chewy or raw tasting. The color of the pasta will have an even appearance and there will be nothing mushy or gummy about it.
2. Just like overcooked pasta, overcooked vegetables are a major disappointment. They lose their shape, texture and flavor when they are overcooked. I like my vegetables cooked but still crisp in texture with a bit of freshness left in them. Watch the vegetables and taste for desired doneness.