January 13th, 2009

Winter Reds

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 saute 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
2 eggs
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

Posted in Pastas, Recipes, Sauces

9 Responses to “Winter Reds”
  1. Judy DePalma Says:

    This looks so tasty, and I confess, it’s already a real staple for me. I like the suggestion to add rosemary. Good ole’ red sauce. . . there are millions of variations, thank goodness. I can’t wait to try it with Balsamic too. Thanks for yet another inspiration.

  2. rhonda Says:

    Yummy! I will be making this for some friends that will be coming over to celebrate on inauguration night ! Will be toasting you and yours with my version of winter reds…..maybe some Sacred Stone and St. Francis Old Vine Zin. (a couple glugs, or so) ;-)

  3. Jennifer T Says:

    I love your thoughts about and recipe for winter red sauce. It has all the elements I prize in a dish that I’m making: healthy, affordable, easy, and delicious! I’m looking forward to trying the balsamic vinegar in it. I’ve been using balsamic much more in lots of dishes – particularly soups and greens – and so I’ll look forward to one more application. Thanks!

  4. Jan Wenzler Says:

    …”a couple of glugs” should put Nancy at THE TOP of the new cookbook writers! That’s my kinda cooking. You Go Girl.

  5. Danny Kreps Says:


    My mouth literally just watered. If I had a beaker to measure how much, I would because it almost verged on disgusting. The only thing around here that isn’t disgusting is your beautiful blog. Keep up the good work. And I had your fantastic savory cheesecake the other night…fabulous! Someone both of us know won’t defrost more of it for me though. Call her.

  6. Barbara Hunter Says:

    Hi, Nancy

    I made the Winter Reds sauce and stuffed shells for dinner tonight…it was easy, and a big hit! Steve loved it; it’s always a challenge to find new dishes that he likes. Since he is from Chicago, he is not too keen on southern cooking so I have to stretch my horizons.
    Thanks much!

  7. Emily Says:

    This dish is absolutely AMAZING! I just made it last night. The fresh spinach makes such a difference. I also used fresh tomatoes along with canned crushed tomatoes for the marinara sauce. I think the sauce would be delicious with other kinds of pasta as well.

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