Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gemelli with Sausage in Olive Oil

Gemelli with Sausage in Olive Oil
Pasta may seem like a boring, plain, overused thing to most people. In reality, it is a blank canvas that can easily be made into an almost infinite variety of excellent dishes. The only limits are your imagination, your sense of what flavors work well together, and what you have in your pantry/freezer/garden. Ironically, most good pasta dishes are fairly simple- a few good quality ingredients are all you need.

I started this dish as a way to use up an extra package of Italian sausage we had in the freezer, and to use up the last red onion that was sitting in the fridge. Some of the herbs in the garden have grown enough that I could harvest a few leaves without harming the plants (and the mint growing wild in the backyard is basically unkillable no matter how much I use). I also had a tomato left over that needed to be used before it went bad on me as well- so, just by looking around at what I had available, it was obvious that I had the raw materials for a good pasta dish at my fingertips.

The first thing was obvious- get a large pot of salted water on the stove and start heating it up to cook the gemelli in. The water will take a while to boil and several minutes more once the pasta is dropped, which is usually enough time to put together the condiment/sauce in a large saucepan. The first item needed for the sauce is the red onion - chopped into a small dice.

Coat the bottom of your saucepan with olive oil and let it get up to heat. Put in the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook them over medium heat until they become translucent. If you have some fresh garlic, mince about one clove and add it once the onions are just about ready (or cheat like I did and add a little minced garlic from a jar- fresh is better, but sometimes you need to improvise).

Next, we'll need some sausage. I used one package of six sweet Italian sausages- you'll want to strip the meat out of the casing and break it up a bit before putting it in- and even then you'll probably want to keep breaking it up into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Add the sausage to the pan and let it cook in the oil with the onion and garlic- and keep breaking it up and stirring so it cooks evenly and breaks into bite-sized nuggets.

While the sausage cooks, dice up your tomato- I really didn't want this to be a tomato-based sauce, but a few bits of tomato will give a nice color, and a little freshness. the fluids from the tomato will combine with the oil to make a more cohesive sauce, but it's not nearly enough to become a tomato sauce- the tomato is going to add a little color, and a little tint to our oil rather than become the main event.  For this application, I'm not really concerned about the seeds or the skin, so I'm just dicing the tomato up - making it a small dice will prevent any large chunks of tomato skin from becoming unsightly.

My basil plants are growing at an almost alarming rate- so it's almost a requirement that I use them here. I picked about five or six decent sized leaves, rolled them together into a tight roll, and sliced them into a pile of ribbons. The french would call this a chiffonade- but I'm not french, and my cuts aren't really that precise anyway. This basil was literally growing on the plant about 60 seconds before I washed and chopped them- if you look closely at the photo, you can see how much fragrant oils they contain by how dark the edges of the cuts are.

I also have mint plants growing wild in the backyard. They've been cut down , trimmed, pulled, etc repeatedly, but just keep growing. They also happen to be very fragrant, and have a nice but not overbearing flavor- perfect for most dishes, so I always like to find opportunities to use it. For this dish, about five good sized mint leaves will do the trick without being overbearing. They are a little small to easily chiffonade, so I just give them a nice rough chop and call it a day. The freshness is key here too. This mint was part of a living plant about 90 seconds before the photo was taken. When the herbs are fresh, a little goes a long way, and the kitchen will smell great.

Once the sausage looks fully cooked, we can add our tomato and fresh herbs. Mix it all together and let the herbs wilt, and the tomato begin to break down. Once everything is combined, you can lower the heat down to a simmer. By now your pasta water should be boiling, so you can drop the pasta and let it begin cooking. Gemelli usually takes about seven minutes or so to cook to al dente- and you'll want to be ready to take the pasta out as soon as it hits that al dente mark and still has some body and chew to it.

When the pasta is half to three quarters done, scoop out about 1/4 cup of the hot, starch laden, pasta water and add it into your sausage mixture. You can turn the heat back up a bit to help cook off the excess water. This starchy water shot will help thicken the oily liquid portion of our condiment, and help it stick to the pasta- but we don't want it too wet, so letting it cook down while the pasta finishes should give us enough time to make it work it's subtle magic. This is one of the tricks that makes the difference between a good pasta dish, and a great one.

The pasta is done as soon as it is al dente- it should still feel firm when you bite it, but not hard. Since we're going to finish our pasta in the condiment, it's ok if you err on the side of slightly underdone here. If you overcook the pasta, you'll have a mushy mess. If you undercook the pasta slightly, a little extra time in the pan with the sauce/condiment will fix things. Drain your pasta thoroughly (but DO NOT rinse it! That will wash the starch away from the surface and your sauce will not stick!), then add it to the pan with your sausage mixture and toss until the liquids coat the pasta, and all the sausage and other bits are well combined. Let your pasta finish cooking in the sauce for a minute or two before plating.

A dish like this requires very little in the way of garnish or plating- I just put it on a plate, and top with grated cheese, and a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional- I like a little heat!). You could also top with additional fresh basil if you're so inclined, or substitute a little toasted breadcrumb for the cheese (sometimes called "poor man's parmesan"). The sauce may seem oily while it's in the pan, but once you toss with the pasta, it becomes a nice thin, tasty coating. The flavors are simple and hearty without being overwhelming, and the whole dish can be prepared in 30-45 minutes. Simple ideas with simple execution can easily make a great pasta dish- especially when you start with the freshest ingredients you can get. (I can't wait until my garden starts producing tomatoes...)

Gemelli with Sausage and olive oil, plated with a little red pepper and grated parmesan

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