Years ago my dad bought my mom a Waring blender for Christmas, and it came with a book of recipes. She said I could use it, so I flipped through the book looking for something different to cook. Growing up in the hills of Kentucky, I was used to fresh foods — garden vegetables in the summer, pork in the fall, and a “fresh” chicken anytime the mood struck. Still, in people, places, and foods, I was always attracted to the strange, the foreign, the exotic. When I came across a recipe for “authentic Italian spaghetti” I couldn’t resist. I had heard that the real deal had to simmer all day and tasted nothing like the canned spaghetti and meatballs that took five minutes to prepare. My first venture into Italian cooking had actually come a few years earlier in elementary school when I tried to make pizza from a Detroit cousin’s description of the “tomato pie” and had made a lumpy mess that was not edible. But this time I had a real recipe and a new blender that was guaranteed to mix anything to smithereens. What could go wrong?
Nothing, as it turned out. But I was introduced (in word only) to a new herb that day — basil. We didn’t have any, and I had no idea how basil looked, smelled, or tasted. Besides, I figured that nothing could be that important to a recipe if only one tablespoon was required. I discovered later that the herb’s inclusion in the sauce would have made a world of difference. Still later, while traveling through Italy, I realized, too, that my blender tomato sauce didn’t even come close to being the real thing.
I make many different sauces for pasta these days, some authentic and some not so much. I like them all. This one (a not-so-authentic variety) is an easy favorite to make ahead by the gallon and have spaghetti on hand for a month. Start with this recipe, double it, triple it. Freeze it. Thaw it. Microwave it. Neglect it. You can do anything to it and it keeps getting better the longer it sits and the more it’s reheated.
Spaghetti Sauce with Italian Sausages
Italian sausages — sweet or hot or a mix of both (line the sausages on a cookie sheet and bake uncovered in the oven, turning once to brown all over, on 375 degrees for about 25-30 minutes).
2 large cans Italian tomatoes
1 jar prepared tomato sauce (any brand will do — from the cheap to the specialty brands, Rao’s Ragu, Barilla, Newman’s etc.)
2 small cans tomato paste
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
basil (1 tablespoon dried and 1/2 cup fresh leaves)
oregano (1 tablespoon dried)
2 tablespoons sugar
Mix everything in a big pot (save fresh basil leaves to add the last few minutes of cooking). Simmer over the lowest heat for two hours or longer. Add the cooked sausages the last 30 minutes of cooking.
In the city I first planted basil in a miniscule townhouse garden where it got the perfect amount and angle of sunlight and grew profusely. I made pesto and caprese and basil-infused vinegar. I refrigerated the leaves in oil, froze pesto in ice cube trays, and tied bunches of leaves and strung them with twine across my kitchen to dry.
My son and I had fun washing herbs in a bucket in the back yard.
(Today, my son is the chef extraordinaire who often enjoys telling me a thing or two about herbs.)
My favorite basil recipe from that time comes from The Silver Palate Cookbook (with a few tweaks). I still make it for friends and family and never have a spoonful left. It’s a great appetizer to make early and have on hand for several days.
1 cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns, crushed
1 tablespoon thyme
goat cheese (a log can be left whole or sliced into rounds)
1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
Sundried tomatoes, sliced, about 1/4 cup
Combine oil, bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme in a saucepan over moderate heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil is very hot. Arrange cheese in a bowl or pan. Sprinkle the chopped basil, sundried tomatoes, and garlic over the cheese and then pour the hot oil and seasonings over them. Let cheese cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. (I like to marinate the cheese overnight.)
Today, our suburban back yard is a forest of trees with too much shade to plant basil except in a small area in one corner. It’s amazing, however, how much stuff you can cram into a tiny corner.
We have tomatoes, several types of peppers, and herbs (bergamot mint, pineapple sage, lemon verbena). In pots I have basil, sorrel, lavender, and other varieties of mint.
Basil has become an old friend. It is considered by many cooks as the “king of herbs,” and I can’t imagine summer without it. These days I’ll put it in just about anything — from appetizer to dessert. Basil looks good, smells good, and tastes good and it can make almost any dish look, smell, and taste better.
TO COME AND GO LIKE MAGIC
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