For Chanukah last year, Neen's mother bought me a year-long subscription to Cook's Illustrated, and now I think I am in love (sorry Neen). There are a number of reasons why I love Cook's Illustrated, and the pictures don't even make the list. The real advantage to cooking with them is that they are scientists. Really, they are! They may not know everything about protein folding or combustion, but they know a lot about how to test recipes, and they tell you about every step. Last year, when I first started cooking, the part about cooking recipes that really bothered me is that, unless one wants to make mountains of a dish and eat it for the next three weeks, it is not possible to test all of the parameters of a recipe. Does the addition of this extra component hurt or help? Do you really need to roast that first, or can it just be browned? I am definitely a scientist when it comes to these kinds of questions - I want answers! And since the method for testing is reasonably straight-forward (the hard part is thinking up all of the things you want to test), I was pretty bothered about not having the answers.
Here is where Cook's Illustrated comes to the rescue! They have already done it for me. When I picked up the recipe for Creamy Tomato Pasta Sauce, I could read the two pages of text associated with the recipe and learn that, indeed, using a full Italian soffrito (the mixture of celery, carrots, onions, garlic, etc.) in this recipe makes it too vegetal. So your better off just using onion and garlic - keep it simple. The kinds of tomato used also have a significant impact on the flavor of the sauce - even the difference between canned whole and crushed tomatoes makes a difference because of the calcium chloride that is often added to the whole tomatoes as firming agent. I love that - I didn't know that calcium chloride was a firming agent! But there it is - I learn something every time. If you haven't ever read a Cook's Illustrated I would highly recommend it. They don't do that many recipes in an issue (usually around 10), but each recipe is worth reading, and they also do a lot of tests on cooking utensils and ingredients (which is the tastiest Turkey on market - you might be surprised by the answer). Besides, at $6.00 an issue they are really a steal.
With their recipes, given the care that goes into generating them, I am usually pretty careful not to modify unless I really think they missed a flavor component that I want (heat, for instance...). In this case, however, as I was reaching for the Serrano peppers I forced myself to stop. Maybe not everything has to be hot, right. The rest of recipe was straightforward to make and extremely delicious. The flavor of the sauce was rich and deep. It had a fuller flavor then I usually associate with tomato-cream sauces, but without the monotony that can develop from too much RICH and CREAM flavor and not enough tomato flavor. This was avoided by the addition uncooked crushed tomato at the very end when adding the cream, which brightened the flavor profile of the dish substantially. Neen commented that she didn't even miss the meat! There actually were pieces of prosciutto put in, but they were small enough that I didn't really notice them. So for a vegetarian version, just remove all meat from the dish.
Oh... and when I said maybe not everything needs heat - well, I was wrong. This is definitely a sauce that could take some extra heat. And I would be very tempted to add just the smallest touch of vinegar (really, really small). The flavor is very delicate and I like how it gives it just a little more body.
Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce (Do's take on Cook's Illustrated's version)
3 Tbs unsalted butter
3 oz thick ham or pancetta, minced
1 small onion, diced fine
1 bay leaf
generous shake of Red Pepper Flakes
2 Serrano Peppers, stemmed and chopped
1 tsp vinegar
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs tomato paste
4 oz oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained, rinsed, patted dry, and chopped coarse.
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs dry white wine
2 cups plus 2 Tbs crushed tomatoes (from one 28 oz can)
1 pound short pasta
1/2 cup heavy cream
Ground black pepper
Grated Parmesan, for serving
- Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add ham, onion, Serrano peppers, bay leaf, pepper flakes, and 1/4 tsp salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is very soft and beginning to turn light gold, 8-12 min. Increase heat to medium-high, add garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly darkened, 1-2 min. Add 1/4 cup wine and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid has evaporated, 1-2min.
- Add 2 cups crushed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened (spoon should leave trail when dragged through sauce), 25-30min.
- Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil. Add pasta and 1 Tbs salt and cook until al dente.
Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water; drain pasta and transfer back to cooking pot.
- Remove bay leaf from sauce and discard. Stir cream, remaining 2 Tbs crushed tomatoes, 1 tsp vinegar, and remaining 2 Tbs wine into sauce; season to taste with salt and pepper. Add sauce to cooked pasta, adjusting consistency with up to 1/2 cup pasta cooking water. Serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.
- We're submitting this to Ruth's Kitchen Experiment's Bookmarked Recipes, a new weekly event that could sure help us get through our giant file folder of magazine clippings!