Sausage, Peppers and Shells

Sausage, Peppers and Shells
Excerpted from The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Scribner, 1999). Copyright 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Serve 8 as a first course, 4 as a main dish

The shells hold bits of this sauce with its chunks of tomato, peppers and sausage. What sets this sausage and peppers apart is how the sausage is cooked. It simmers in red wine, then the wine is boiled down to an essence which finally is blended into the sautéed vegetables and sausage. Serve the pasta as a one-dish supper with tumblers of red wine and a coarse-grain bread.

In the days when wedding feasts were cooked by neighbors and the reception filled every room in the house, this pasta was wedding food in the mountain homes north of Rome. The sausages were always homemade and the tomatoes and peppers had probably been put up by the mother and grandmothers of the bride. Now the same dish opens many a Sunday dinner, or is cooked up by working couples for a weeknight supper.

1 pound sweet Italian sausage
3 cups dry red wine
Water
1/2 medium red onion
1/2 medium stalk celery with leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large sweet red pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 dried medium-hot chile (such as ancho, California, or peperoncini)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 large fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 14-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 pound medium-sized shell pasta or tacconi
6 quarts boiling salted water

1. Prick the sausages all over with a fork. Lightly brown in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat, then add the wine and enough water to barely cover. Simmer gently, partially covered, 20 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of a sausage reads 160 F.

2. Remove the sausage and set aside to cool, then cut into 1/2-inch dice. Skim the fat from the pan liquid. Boil the liquid down by three quarters, scraping down the sides of the pan. Turn into a bowl and set aside. Clean the pan.

3. Mince together the onion and celery. Set the skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil, and sauté the minced vegetables, sweet pepper, and chile until the onions are lightly browned. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the garlic and basil, cooking for a few seconds. Add the oregano, the reduced sausage liquid, and the tomatoes with their juices, crushing them with your hands as they go into the pan. Cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble 5 minutes. Blend in the sausage, cover, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer another 5 minutes. (The sauce can be set aside, covered, 30 to 40 minutes, or refrigerated overnight.)

4. Cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until tender yet firm to the bite. Scoop out and reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta in a colander.

5. Meanwhile, remove the chile from the sauce and reheat the sauce if necessary. "Lengthen" the sauce by stirring in the reserved pasta water and simmering a few minutes. Taste for seasoning.

6. Toss the sauce with the hot pasta and serve immediately. No cheese is needed with this dish.

LYNNE'S TIPS

Tacconi is a pasta shape, 1¾-inches square, cut from flat sheets of pasta dough.

Use good quality whole canned tomatoes such as Muir Glen or Hunt's packed in juice or Red Pack brand labeled "in tomato puree." Ninety-nine percent of what is labeled "San Marzano" in canned tomatoes is a travesty and has little to do with the fabled tomato originally grown in the fertile volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius.

Many pasta recipes call for adding a bit of reserved pasta cooking water to smooth out a sauce. A trick to help you remember to set aside some water before draining the pasta is to set a measuring cup inside your colander as a reminder.