Friday, September 12th, 2014

So it begins…

IMG_0043It’s easy to get cocky the first week back to school. Coming off the summer months, well-rested and pumped with vitamin D, I begin to forget what last June looked and felt like (dusty lunchboxes, forgotten homework, despair) and look forward to the return of the school year routine: The busyness (so many things to do!), the atmosphere (piles of fallen leaves at the bus stop), the freedom (the kids are away learning stuff while I sit here typing next to a snoozing dog). Which is not to say I haven’t screwed up already…

Just 20 minutes before the arrival of the school bus on Monday morning, Conor looked up at me (as I drank my third cup of coffee and stared out the window) and said, “aren’t you supposed to be riding the bus today?”

Frickin’ frick!

Yes, I had completely forgotten that I’d volunteered to help with weepy Kindergartners on that morning’s bus route. Don’t worry. I made it (with enough time to put a bra on) and all the Kindergartners arrived safely, if still a little weepy.

Forgetful hiccup aside, this joie de Septembre even extends to meal time. Meals composed of town pool snack bar offerings and backyard hot dogs are all fine and dandy, but the time comes to sit back down at a table, eat a meal with utensils, and make conversation. Of course I KNOW that come week #2 of back-to-school (yes, my kids go back to school later than everyone else on the planet) the drudgery will set in. Soccer practices will run late, homework assistance will be needed, it will be 5 o’clock and the chicken is nowhere near marinated.  But until then, I’m going to ride this wave of blissed-out beginnings. I’m also not going to try and knock anything out of the park; which leads me to what I think is the simplest and most satisfying dish you can ever make for a family weeknight meal: Pasta with Tomato Sauce.

It’s a classic meal that appeals to everyone, no matter what kind of family you’re feeding— from a passel of picky children to your on-a-budget roommate. It’s fast. It’s comforting. It’s filling. You can add meatballs but you don’t really don’t have to. A generous grating of pecorino is all you really need.

So my gift to you this back-to-school season is the 10-Minute version from KEEPERS, which I make time and time again, including already once this week. One of my favorite anecdotes about this dish is from a mom-friend with three boys, who had never before made tomato sauce from scratch until she made this version for her family. It’s now in her regular rotation and, even better, one of her boys asks for it by the name: “mommy’s sauce”.

SPAGHETTI WITH 10-MINUTE BASIC TOMATO SAUCE

SERVES 4 TO 6

If you normally rely on jarred tomato sauces, here are five reasons to make this sauce instead the next time spaghetti is on the menu: It’s fresher tasting, preservative-free, less expensive, requires only basic pantry items, and takes barely any more effort or time.

We find the quality of canned whole tomatoes is generally better and more consistent than the crushed version, so we usually buy the former. Caroline crushes them into the pan using her hands; Kathy prefers to crush them against the bottom of the pan with a potato masher. Either way, pierce them first to avoid spurts and remove any hard cores. Sometimes canned tomatoes can be very acidic; if you find this to be the case when you taste the sauce, add a pinch of sugar.

Salt

1 pound spaghetti

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for finishing the dish

2 large garlic cloves, minced

One 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes

Handful of basil leaves, roughly torn (optional)

Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

-Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and season it generously with salt; it should taste like seawater. When it returns to a boil, add the pasta, quickly stir to separate the noodles, then cover the pot. When the water returns to a boil again, uncover and boil the pasta until al dente, stirring occasionally.

– Meanwhile, in a large high-sided sauté pan, heat the oil, garlic, and 2 large pinches of salt over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant and just starting to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing the tomatoes with your hands or a potato masher (see note above). Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until you can draw a line through it with a wooden spoon and it doesn’t fill in immediately, 5 to 7 minutes. The sauce should be light and fresh tasting, so don’t let it cook down too much. Check the seasonings (it should taste a little salty) and set aside.

– When the pasta is ready, drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, then pour the noodles on top of the tomato sauce. Add a little more oil and toss to combine over medium heat. If the pasta looks dry, add some of the cooking water. Check the seasonings, add the basil (if using), and serve with the cheese.

Tip: Once you know how to make a basic tomato sauce, you can easily turn out a number of variations, including Spicy Tomato-Cream Sauce (opposite page); puttanesca (add some minced anchovy fillets with the garlic and capers and chopped olives with the tomatoes); and Amatriciana (cook some chopped bacon or pancetta and then onion before the garlic and add a generous amount of black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes). You can also cook the basic sauce down a little more and use it on pizza.

TIP: If you prefer a smooth sauce rather than a chunky one, instead of crushing the tomatoes, puree them with a handheld blender (right in the can, if you like and are careful).

 

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