Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pasta with Italian Sausage & Summer Vegetables

I have never been much of a meal planner.  I know that some people (maybe most?) plan several days out and then shop accordingly.  My preference is to maintain a pantry of favorite staples and then shop for fresh produce according to what looks good and what’s in season.  I know I’ll be able to come up with a way to use everything I buy once I get it home.   Often this lack of planning means that I have to run to the store to grab one or two things that I will need for whatever it is I have decided to make for dinner.  It is true that this is a rather inefficient use of my time…but it is also true that my lack of planning allows me to be spontaneous in the things I prepare….matching our meals to the weather…and to my mood. 

This style of meal planning (if you can call it that) occasionally causes difficulties.  A good example of this occurs during the last few days at home just before leaving for a vacation.  It is during these times that a little advance planning—purchasing with specific meals in mind—would come in handy.  As it is, I find that I have usually backed myself into a corner of having to come up with meals that will use up what I have and at the same time won’t require a trip to the store.  I suppose if you are cooking for a larger household, a run to the store would be an option, but for the small household a shopping trip usually produces more than it is possible to use in a single meal (so many things we purchase don’t come in small quantities).  Because I hate to waste food…and I don’t want to return to a produce drawer filled with items in varying stages of decay…everything needs to be consumed or frozen before I leave.  The good news is that this pre-vacation cooking mode sometimes results in some delicious meals. 

Two days before I left for my vacation this year my produce drawer still contained 4 small summer squash, 1 yellow bell pepper, a big bowl of pink-eyed peas and several ears of sweet corn.  On the counter I still had some lovely heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and a few red onions.   The red onions didn’t worry me…these will of course keep.  And as much as I would have liked to enjoy them fresh, I knew the Pink-eyed peas and corn could be frozen.  (I’ll be grateful to have them in the freezer later in the fall and winter).  This left the tomatoes, zucchini and bell pepper on my “must use” list.  So, two nights before my departure, we had my favorite summer pizza made with zucchini and tomatoes.  That left a lone zucchini, one bell pepper and some cherry tomatoes for our final dinner. 

I decided on a pasta dish.  (I surprise there.)  To make my available fresh ingredients into a pasta “sauce” I added some of the red onion, basil from the garden, Parmesan from the pantry and some Italian Sausage from the freezer.  If I had wanted to go meatless, a big handful of black olives would have been an excellent addition.  Looking back, I wish I had had another small zucchini to add.  But even so, the pasta was delicious…a definite keeper…one that I know I will be making again. 

Penne with Italian Sausage & Sautéed  Summer Vegetables

1 4 oz. link Sweet Italian Sausage
2 to 3 T. olive oil
1 or 2 small zucchini (about 4 to 6 oz. total weight)
1 small (or half a medium) red onion (3 ½ to 4 oz.), peeled, halved, cored and sliced lengthwise a scant ¼-inch thick
Salt & freshly ground pepper
1 large yellow bell pepper, topped and tailed, cored, halved cross-wise and cut in scant ¼-inch strips
½ lb. penne pasta (or other short, sturdy shape)
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
½ cup red cherry tomatoes, halved
6 large basil leaves, cut in a ¼-inch chiffonade
Salt & Pepper
¼ c. (3/4 oz.) finely grated Parmesan

In a small ovenproof sauté pan brown the sausage.  I like to let the sausage finish cooking in the oven (350 to 375 degrees), but you can finish it on the stovetop if you prefer…just lower the heat and turn occasionally until the juices run clear.   Remove the sausage from the pan and let rest.  When cool enough to handle, halve lengthwise and then cut each half cross-wise on a short diagonal into ¼-inch slices.

Slice the zucchini on the diagonal a scant 1/3-inch thick, then slice into strips so that each piece resembles the quill shape of the pasta.

Set a large sauté pan (just large enough to hold the onions and peppers in snug single layer) over medium-high heat.  When the pan is hot, add a small amount of olive oil (maybe half a tablespoon).  Add the zucchini and sauté until golden—3 or 4 minutes.  The squash should be pleasantly al dente—definitely not mushy.  If necessary, increase the heat to high to keep the squash from steaming.  Transfer the squash to a plate and season with salt and pepper. Set aside. 

Return the pan to the heat and add a generous splash of olive oil.  When the oil is hot, add the onion and bell pepper.  Season with salt and pepper and sauté, tossing occasionally, until the vegetables are caramelized in spots and no longer crisp but still have some texture (tender with no crunch).   While the onions and peppers are cooking, regulate the heat as necessary to keep them from burning.  If they look dry, add more oil.

When the peppers and onions are done to your liking, set them aside and keep warm while you cook the pasta.

Drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with about 2 Tablespoons of salt.  Stir to make sure the penne isn't sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Cook until the pasta is al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. 

When the pasta has three or four minutes left to cook, return the peppers to moderate heat.  When the peppers and onions begin to sizzle, add the garlic and cook until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes, zucchini and sausage to the pan and cook until the tomatoes have just begun to soften (but have not collapsed—the skins will feel “tight” and the flesh will have softened just slightly).  

Add the drained pasta and basil to the pan along with a generous drizzle of olive oil and toss to combine.  If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of pasta water.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve topped with Parmesan, if desired.  Serves 2 to 3.

 - Recipe is easily doubled.  Make sure you choose a sauté pan that is wide enough to hold the onions and peppers without crowding.
 - I was lucky in that I had opposite colored peppers and cherry tomatoes.  If you had a red bell pepper, yellow or gold cherry tomatoes would be nice.  But you should of course use whatever you have on hand.
 - Substitute yellow squash for the zucchini.
 - Omit the sausage and add a third to one half cup of pitted black olives, halved lengthwise.

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