Food! Penne Arrabbiata – a spicy tomato, garlic and onion based pasta

“Ummm, oh yeah. This one’s going in the book.” That was Jake, referring to our little notebook of favorite recipes. We started one a few years ago when we started dating: tracking little meals we made together that we really liked. The first entry was for these amazing rum crepes he made me for breakfact one Saturday morning, followed by notes on some oatmeal-banana pancakes I’d made the following week. It includes recipes we experimented with for our Friday evenings (dinner and Netflix), like Chicken Provençal (with lemons and vermouth), and Chicken Lombardy (with mushrooms, marsala wine and mozzarella cheese). And no, it’s not all snooty sounding food. One recipe is for Cowboy Casserole, made with cream of mushroom soup and tater tots.

This one, Penne Arrabbiata, I had for the first time one evening on our recent vacation in Montreal, and knew I wanted to try to make it for us some Friday after we got back.

Arrabbiata sauce is a spicy meatless tomato sauce, made with lots of dried red chili peppers, onions and garlic. At the restaurant, they added sweet red and green bell peppers, sliced green olives, and thinly sliced zuchinni to the sauce, and served it with an antipasto salad of salamis and pepperoncini peppers. Jake’s not a fan of green olives, so for our version, I swapped them out for black olives. And because it’s a meatless sauce, I like to add mushrooms to provide that earthy flavor.

So I experimented, not sure how it was going to turn out. Various recipes I’d found on the interwebs included different ingredients and ranged from 1 teaspoon to a full tablespoon of red pepper flakes. I was pretty sure I didn’t want it that spicy, so I used just 1/2 teaspoon, and it turned out great. Spicy enough that it had a bite to it, but not hot enough that it burned a hole in your intestines later.

The sauce can be as simple or as chunky as you prefer. In this first batch, I went the chunky route: I used diced tomatoes, added extra peppers, olives, etc.  But sometimes you don’t want a plate full of vegetables. For a smoother, lighter sauce, stick with the garlic and onion, use maybe 1/2 cup of the other vegetables, and omit the diced tomatoes.

To round out our dinner, we cut up a rustic baguette, and served it with salami and pepperoni (and some green olives for me). Oh, and some mellow Merlot. Turned out pretty good. Good enough to go in the book and definitely good enough to plan again for the future.

So here it is. Make it as simple or with as many ingredients as you’re in the mood to mess with.

What you need

• 2 cups whole-wheat penne

• 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
• ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (add up to 1 tablespoon if you like it really hot, but ½ tsp was spicy enough for my taste)
• 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1-2 teaspoons dried Italian herbs
• ½ cup wine (red or white, as you prefer)
• 1 can (15-oz) crushed tomatoes (makes the sauce base)
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• Salt

• Whatever chopped vegetables you’re in the mood for. I used:

• 1 can (15-oz) diced tomatoes
• 1 cup sliced red & green bell peppers
• about 1/4 cup of sliced green or black olives
• 1 cup mushrooms

What to do

1. Cook your penne. Add 1-2 tablespoons salt to about 4 quarts of water in a sauce pan. You want your penne when cooked to be a little salty; this will add balance to the heat of the sauce.

2. In a skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and throw in the red pepper flakes, Italian herbs, garlic and onions. Add in your choice of chopped vegetables: I used peppers, olives, and mushrooms. Stir fry until tender, and the oil is infused with the garlic, pepper and herb flavor. About 3 or 4 minutes.

3. Add the wine, scraping with a wooden spoon to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Simmer until the liquid reduces by about half. Then pour in your cans of crushed and diced tomatoes, and stir to combine. Add the sugar and some salt to taste. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until your pasta is ready.

4. When the penne is cooked to desired tenderness, use a slotted spoon or ladle and mix the pasta directly into the sauce. No need to strain. Some of the water will mix with the sauce, and that’s just fine. Stir all together until the penne is well-coated with the sauce, and let sit over low heat for 10 minutes while the flavors blend, stirring occasionally.

Serve with grated parmesan cheese, if you’re a cheese lover. Pour yourself some wine, and pick a favorite movie on Netflix. Enjoy your evening!