Most Italian cooking is based on simplicity and the quality of a few carefully selected seasonal ingredients. It’s actually the ingredients that do all the work and the cook’s job is to simply combine complimentary flavours without too much messing (or ‘processing’).
We have recognised and pondered the success of the Mediterranean diet for years. There also used to be debate about ‘the French paradox’ where a population that enjoys saturated fat* from dairy products and meat had a lower than (historically) expected rate of coronary disease. This led to hypotheses about the protective effects of red wine or garlic.
Irrespective of your background or agenda, what is the simplest single conclusion that can be drawn from all this? In a nutritional-health arena with strong differing opinions and perspectives I suspect that one take-home message would be universally accepted by all — eat unprocessed whole foods which are fresh, seasonal and predominantly plant based.
This simple concept links all ‘healthy diets’ no matter how they are spun, including the Mediterranean and traditional French diets. As a baseline, the problem is that this message is too simple and not exciting enough to satisfy our hunger for exaggerated magical concepts.
A simple pasta and red sauce is a beautiful thing. We won’t pretend to have the expertise of an ‘Italian Mamma’ who has the pedigree and experience to extract the full potential from the simple ingredients. Of course, it helps if you have phenomenal tomatoes available on your door-step! This is our version and has been tweaked towards health (of course), convenience of (mostly store cupboard) ingredients and speed of cooking — you should be able to put this together within 30 minutes.
The principal foundation of the sauce are tomatoes and rich tomato flavour — therefore this ingredient is essential to the overall recipe. It’s worth sourcing the best available to you and San Marzano tinned tomatoes are recommended. In the UK the highest quality, easily available supermarket brand is Cirio, (in our opinion but also came just second in a recent poll). Together with high quality extra-virgin olive oil, slow cooked onions and garlic this is the basic foundation for the sauce (this in itself makes a beautiful simple sauce which does not require blending but clearly does not have the desired veg boost). Combine with dry pasta and most of these ingredients are store cupboard or larder essentials. It’s also a very economical dish and can be vegetarian or combined with meat.
Now for the ‘blended’ bit — this is designed to get more vegetables into you and speed up the cooking process. The recipe is dynamic and you actually ‘hide’ most vegetables in the basic red sauce. This makes it flexible and you can use whatever you have available. However, it is also a vehicle for flavour and a basic vegetable mix is the humble beginnings of most of the world’s great slow cooked sauces — by the end, they simply melt away in the cooking and impart depth and complexity of flavour.
The French use a trio of aromatics (onion, celery, carrot) called Mirepoix and the same trio becomes a Soffritto in Italian. This ‘trick’ of increasing vegetable content and flavour can be used in many dishes either through slow cooking or blending — we will be using this technique in other upcoming recipes. We also particularly like red peppers (roasted or whole), courgettes, broccoli, spinach (red and green sauce) and fresh chillies.
Finally, for the pasta bit — wholegrain spaghetti and linguini is actually very good and you should try it for yourself — it naturally has an al-dente texture and nutty flavour. Regular pasta is obviously made with white flour and so if you go down this route, you need to make sure you limit the amount — don’t go for a huge plate of pasta.
Use the veg-rich sauce, a simple nitrate boost side salad or side veg or a piece of protein (goes well with prawns — don’t worry about the ‘cholesterol’ content!) to bulk out your meal — satisfaction guaranteed.
You may have noticed that a lot of our recipes contain garlic and are probably interested in the well-established health/cardiovascular rumours — our review coming soon . . .
*The French also like bread and pastries made with white flour.