In the summer, basil tends to be my preferred herb pairing with tomatoes; there’s nothing like a quick, raw sauce of the two, coarsely chopped, drenched in olive oil and tossed over some capellini to make me happy. But, on this gray January day, the containers of once-lush basil abandoned on my backyard wall hold bare stalks: my stark zen reminder to practice patience. It will be a good six months before I can get my fresh basil-homegrown tomato fix.
Thank goodness that off-season, there are alternatives: thicker, winter red sauces, and the heartier fare they help create. For that reason, canned tomato products prove indispensable. And, they’re good; I try to keep a few cans handy in my pantry. Something about having a pot of this sauce on the stove to fiddle with helps to ease my wait, banish any winter blues.
There are countless variations of red sauce theme and everybody has her tried-and-true methods and ingredients: Whole or diced tomatoes; crushed, paste, or puree; red wine, white wine, dried herbs or fresh. My sister swears by a scoop of sugar in her sauce—which I resist. I like the sweetness that a little balsamic vinegar adds.
Recently I’ve taken to adding fresh rosemary; it’s got a rustic, woody element that melds well in the sauce and seems right for this time of year. I have a large bush that has long thrived through winters in its front porch spot, so I enjoy snipping a sprig to plunge into the sauce as it simmers. Once the rosemary has done its job, just pluck it out, like you would with bay leaf.
Winter Red Sauce
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 medium onion, small diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz can whole plum tomatoes
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
½ cup red wine
a couple of glugs of balsamic vinegar
1 sprig fresh rosemary
salt and black pepper to taste
In a 3 qt. saucepan, heat olive oil. Add onion and sauté for 3-4 minutes, then add garlic. Stir and cook another minute.
Open can of whole tomatoes, pour off juice and reserve. Chop tomatoes and add to saucepan. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes.
Add reserved tomato juice, crushed tomatoes, red wine, and balsamic. Stir well.
Add fresh rosemary sprig and simmer for an hour. Stir occasionally.
Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove rosemary and use.
Hearty, but not over-the-top heavy, these shells are stuffed with a blend of lowfat cheeses and fresh spinach and baked in a blanket of Winter Red.
Stuffed Shells Florentine
1 box Jumbo Shells (there are about 42 shells in a box)
8 oz. fresh young spinach (sometimes called “baby spoon”)
2 lb.tub part-skim ricotta
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella
1 ½ cups shredded parmesan
1 batch “Winter Red Sauce”
Cook shells according to box directions; drain and set aside to cool.
Coat 2 9×13 (or size thereabouts) casserole dishes with a little olive oil.
In a food processor outfitted with the swivel blade, pulse the spinach until it’s chopped. Scrape into a mixing bowl and return the work bowl to the processor. Refit with swivel blade.
Add ricotta, eggs, salt, black pepper, and garlic and processor until well blended.
Stir the ricotta mixture into the spinach. Fold in 1 ¼ cup each mozzarella and parmesan.
Cover the bottom of the casserole dishes with a few ladles of Winter Red Sauce.
Fill each shell with spinach-ricotta mixture and place in the pool of sauce
Spoon some more sauce over the shells and top with remaining shredded cheeses.
Bake uncovered for 35 minutes in a 325 degree preheated oven. Serves 8-10