Monday, August 6, 2007

Last night's dinner: Sausage Rigatoni

When I lived in California, my mother didn't let me cook much, and when she did, I cooked for myself. Nobody was going to eat my food. So when I moved out here, I took some of my mother's recipes with me, of course, and a couple I still make faithfully, but this is one I adapted to better suit our needs.

I made spaghetti just as my mother does a time or two. It was OK, but it didn't impress us. I didn't do it exactly right (practice makes perfect and all) and though hers was always good, it wasn't exactly how I would do it. Over the past, almost 2 years, I've developed my own pasta dish. Mostly I just call it "rigatoni" (since the Italian tradition seems to call it after the type of noodles used) or "pasta" or "the killer pasta", but I suppose a more proper name would be "Sausage Rigatoni".

I've never been a big fan of spaghetti (the noodle, not the dish). So my first change was to change the noodle. I experimented with a few before deciding on Rigatoni. I don't know why I chose it, but I like it. I like my pasta al dente (which means it's not completely softened) and even after baking in the oven, Rigatoni holds up better than anything I've tried.

Also, beef doesn't really stand out in a good sauce. It becomes a texture, but trivializes the difference between meat and meatless pasta, unless you use meatballs, which I haven't learned yet. (If I do establish a spaghetti dish, it will be with meatballs.) Also, ground beef is rather bland (even steak is, unseasoned). I discovered the Johnsonville Hot Italian sausage, and first experimented with the ground variety before settling on the links.

I start out with this wide and deep skillet. It's not wide nor deep enough as you will see later, but for now it's fine. I'm shown using the Food Lion generic hot Italian sausage. The Johnsonville is better, but on a budget this is fine.

I put about a cup of water in the skillet, but enough to put ¼" to ½" of water along the surface. I put a generous amount of crushed red pepper and Tabasco sauce in this water, let it heat up some, and then put the links in. Our pan slopes somewhat (or the stove does, I dunno) so I put one on top and the other four side by side. If you can get a more even surface, I recommend one on top, one on the bottom, and the other 3 in the middle. Have some space between them.

WARNING! The steam will be very bad because of the combination of Tabasco and red pepper. It will make your eyes water, clear your sinuses like nothing else! Ensure adequate ventilation when doing this.

While the sausage is simmering (cover it and vent, better if your lid has holes as mine does), chop up vegetables. These are optional, but will add to the dish. Here I used two zucchinis and two yellow crookneck squash, all about 6" long and 1" at the widest. I cut them down the middle and in 8 pieces (times 2 since it's cut longways). Squash not your thing? Some mushrooms would work, too, like one of those 4" square things you get at the grocery store.

Be sure to turn the sausage after about 5 minutes. Another 5-8 minutes after turning, and move onto the next step.

I then drain the sausage, but I don't rinse or wipe out the pan. What stays behind won't hurt the veggies. Whether you're using squash or mushrooms, I'd put some oil down (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is the best for you, as I understand, and that's what I use here) and some chopped or minced garlic. We couldn't get minced, so those small chunks you see are chopped garlic. Stir this often. And, when you can, take out the sauce - you'll need it soon enough.

Slice up the sausage as thinly as you can. You should be able to get about
½" or a little less. Don't want it too thick. Don't worry if it's uncooked or undercooked in the middle. Trust me, it'll be fully cooked by the time the dish is done, but if you're really concerned, you can toss it in with the veggies until it's cooked thoroughly. Now's a good time to start the rigatoni boiling. As always with pasta, cover it with 1-3" of water, depending on the pan size, put the heat on high and cover, tilting the lid and checking occasionally.

As you can see, I use a large jar (not the biggest, but the biggest with the regular metal cap) of Prego sauce. That's one thing I learned from my Mama, stick with Prego. I've never tried Ragu, always heard it was too thin. But if you were raised on Ragu, or something else, by all means use it. But I recommend Prego. It is simply the best. Pick the flavor you like, it doesn't matter.

I then use two cans of tomatoes. Be creative here. I've found generic is perfectly fine, but I couldn't find a generic equivalent for one at Food Lion, so I used the national brand. Stewed tomatoes are alright, but I prefer them diced. The tomato paste (again, the Food Lion brand is just as good as Hunt's/Del Monte) is optional and will thicken the pasta sauce. I use it because I like a thicker sauce.

Drain the veggies, but be careful. Pouring oil down the drain isn't the smartest thing to do. Drain it into something, or run hot water for a couple minutes before and after.

When I do the sauce, I first pour the Prego in, and let that heat up. I then drain and add the diced tomato cans one at a time, stirring after each one. The paste I add last. Put the heat on low, or at least medium, and prepare for splatter.

Lastly, put the sausage and veggies in, stirring well. This image is one you have to see larger (click on it, same goes for the rest) to see the details. Otherwise, you can see that it's all mixed in. Reduce the heat and cover.

Carefully drain the rigatoni pasta, it will steam up good. The noodles should still be firm, yet soft enough to pinch. If you don't think it's quite soft enough, trust me, it'll soften some more when you bake it.

Our pan wasn't big enough, so we put it in two pans. The smaller one we're giving away, but the bigger one we keep for ourselves. I pour the pasta into the dishes, then put the sauce over it and mix. If you'd rather stir it in the pan you boiled the rigatoni in, that works too, but I didn't see the need. Had I done it, I probably would have gotten a little more even sauce:noodles ratio between the two. I think "ours" has more sauce to noodles, but the other one turned out fine.

Now, we cover this in tinfoil and bake for 45 minutes at 400° Fahrenheit - I don't know the Celsius equivalent for you if you're outside the United States.

After 45 minutes of cooking, I remove the tinfoil and cover in finely shredded Cheddar cheese - and pop it back in for another 15 minutes, uncovered, still at 400F.

After cooling down some, the pasta is ready to serve, but be careful, it's hot! And not just the temperature, it's pretty spicy, too! Especially if you add more crushed red pepper and Tabasco to the tomato sauce before putting the meat and veggies in, but I did not do that this time.

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