When the wind gets chilly in northeast Ohio, we begin to store food for winter like squirrels.
I am not talking about the many noble Clevelanders that shop until they drop at their local farmer’s market, and freeze and can those goodies to enjoy the fruits of harvest all winter long. I want to be one of them, but alas, I always make an excuse not to be.
I am talking about those of us that live in slight fear of the first snowflake, and the slippery roads, and the emergency weather alerts that caution us to stay indoors. I am talking about those nights when even pizza places aren’t delivering.
I like to stock up on dry goods, cabinet fare, which I can turn into a decent meal when needed. I am all for the fresh, local, from-scratch food – really I am. On a cold winter’s night, though, when the tomatoes in the supermarket look paler than me, I want a good meal I can cook while wearing my fuzzy slippers.
My cold weather comfort food is pasta: hearty red tomato–sauced pasta. The trick is to purchase quality dry goods that can be ready when you are.
When choosing a dry pasta, look for imported Italian pasta. Italian pasta is made with durum wheat flour or durum semolina, so look for those words on the packaging. This creates a strong pasta that can be cooked al dente (to the bite), remaining firm, but not crunchy. The pasta gives your teeth something to bite down on, not soggy squishiness. Pasta made with softer flour can be easily overcooked.
Check the package to make sure, whichever pasta shape you choose, there are not a lot of broken pieces, and avoid older, dusty boxes, as old pasta falls apart in water. My favorite shape is fusilli, which looks like a corkscrew. I think the twists give the sauce a great place to cling to, and the individual pastas are perfectly bite sized.
Give your pasta room to boil. Small pots overflowing with pasta will cause the starch released into the water to turn the outside of your pasta gummy. Use the largest pot of water you have for the pasta, and let it really boil before adding salt. Then “salt the water like the sea.” The water will impart salt flavor evenly to your pasta, preventing you from having to add it at the end.
Canned tomatoes seem to take over an entire aisle at my local supermarket. Just as every celebrity has his or her own clothing line, every food company has its own tomato sauce. I know it is very tempting to buy one of these cans, with an artistic jar or vacuum-sealed pouch, but don’t. Instead, move slightly down the aisle to the canned tomatoes. These tomatoes are patiently waiting for you to design your own fabulous meal.
Read the labels and choose tomatoes from a town in Italy called San Marzano. This little town lives on the hill of Mount Vesuvius. This volcano, also of Pompeii-fame, has amazingly rich soil. San Marzano tomatoes have an earthy, robust flavor, perfect for a frosty winter night. Two brands I like are Pomi and Cento. Buy the tomato chunks, not the sauce or purée, as the pieces of tomato make a more aesthetically pleasing and rustic final dish.
Cheese is a very important factor in making the perfect pantry pasta. Buy whole segments of Parmigiano-Reggiano from your better supermarkets. It will be an expensive investment, but I promise it is worth it. Eat a small chunk to savor its flavor, then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, tightly in aluminum foil, and label and date it for the freezer.
When you need to grate cheese onto your pasta dish, you can use your grater on the frozen cheese without trouble, and the flavor is really outstanding.
In a large sauce pan/high-sided skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil. Add a couple of minced garlic cloves. Dump in the canned tomatoes. From there, choose your favorite pantry item. I usually throw in marinated artichoke hearts that are lightly drained from their oil, some drained and sliced canned black olives, a healthy dash of Italian seasoning and as much red pepper flakes as I dare.
You could also incorporate a can of cannellini beans, crushing half and mixing them into the sauce before adding the remaining whole beans. You can also experiment with frozen ready-cooked shrimp, asparagus spears from a can and a sprinkle of dried herbes de Provence.
The possibilities are endless when you start with a good base. So, bring it on, Mother Nature. My tummy is rumbling, and my pantry is ready.