A homemade tomato sauce, spring vegetables, and garden beginnings

March 24th, 2010

Spring Pasta by lkwm on dRc

“I would like to have a garden,” my husband said to me shortly after we were first married.

“Whatever for?” I thought to myself; “There is a grocery and a farmer’s market less than a mile down the road where I can easily buy anything we need, and I have little interest in tilling the ground in my spare time.”

So, like the congenial newlywed I was attempting to be, I said little, and figured this too would pass, as well intended ideas often do.

Cabbage in sunlight

However, come early spring of that first matrimonial year, lo and behold, Brian went out and bought stacks upon stacks of seed starting trays, a pile of organic starter soil bags, and a whole host of seeds – many of which I had never heard nor seen the likes of in all my days.

Yellow pear tomatoes, purple okra, champagne bell peppers, and the most delectable yellow cucumbers, were just a few introductions made.

He pulled out old, dusty card tables and set up camp in the basement, since he was duly cautioned against “starting seeds” in the proper living spaces of my our new nest, with large florescent lights clipped to the innards of our floor joists, lit to nurture and grow the nascent seedlings.

Spring pasta

“What is it that makes you want to start the plants from seed?” I asked, all the while thinking to myself, “The nursery down the street is full of perfectly happy little plants already weeks ahead of these babies, ready and waiting for someone to give them a loving home in the fertile soil of their garden.”

It’s fun to watch things grow,” Brian replied, “Isn’t it amazing that we put the tiniest little seeds in the soil, gave them light and water, and now they are already seedlings? Look at how they lean towards the light. Don’t you just love them?”

Garden broccoliGarden broccoli

Before long, the weather was warming and the seedlings were growing impatient for a new, roomier home in the great outdoors. I still have vivid memories of standing out in our yard that first spring, virgin soil beneath my feet, shovel in hand, fighting back tears as I painstakingly tried to “turn” the dirt beneath.

It is important to know how to grow your own food,” I could hear Brian saying.

Since that time, we have grown wiser, and now Brian rents an actual tiller each spring to help with the hard labor. He calls the garden “Laura’s garden,” but really it is his, and always has been.

Sure, I make trips to the nursery with him, pick the heirloom seeds I want, and the ten new varieties of tomatoes I am compelled to try each summer, I pick some produce, but mainly, I eat the garden – which is why Brian says it is mine.

Garden broccoli in hand

The garden expands each year, last year covering a good 750 square feet with radishes, turnips, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, oodles of hot peppers, mustard greens, lettuces, onions, potatoes, carrots, squash, green beans, bell peppers, sunflowers, all the herbs you could dream of, butter beans, kale, Swiss chard, honeydew, strawberries, watermelon, peas, broccoli, spinach, cucumbers, zucchini…even luffa.

We still have plants growing from the seedlings of that first garden – Greek oregano, sage, cayenne peppers, yellow and orange pear tomatoes.

It’s taken time and perspective to grow on me, but our garden is something I now cherish and eagerly anticipate each year as the last frost of winter gives way to warm sunny spring days. This year we were surprised with forgotten carrots, broccoli, and cabbage emerging from beneath the winter leaves. I have never tasted such sweet carrots, such tender, mild broccoli.

Brian is right, there is nothing like the taste of food from your own garden.

Garden carrotsGarden carrots

With so many spring vegetables coming into season, and planning to take a meal to a friend who just had a baby, I decided to make a pasta with homemade tomato sauce and spring vegetables.

The sauce is a simple saute of onion and one lone carrot in a good glug of olive oil, followed by a gentle simmer with satiny smooth textured San Marzano tomatoes. You could stop here and have yourself one beautiful homemade tomato sauce. But since it is spring, and spring’s bounty is at hand, why not add fresh artichokes, asparagus, spinach, fava beans, and young English peas, simmer another quick spell, and toss it all with a favorite pasta and gratings of fresh parmesan? It just seems like the “fitting” way to do tomato sauce this time of year, as my grandma Ruth would have said.

This sauce tastes bright from the carrot, tomatoes and vegetables, but still maintains a full bodied flavor due to the infusion of olive oil into the onions. I loved it, and I hope you do as well.

Spring pasta

Tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, and carrot

1 28 oz. can whole Itailian Roma style, plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos*
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea or kosher salt to taste

Saute onion and carrot in the olive oil till soft and onion is translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add Tomatoes and simmer for at least 20 minutes, or until sauce is thickened to desired consistency, breaking tomatoes apart with a wooden spoon. Serve over warm pasta with freshly grated pecorino romano cheese

Pasta with spring vegetables
Adapted liberally from Williams Sonoma’s Savoring Tuscany

1 lb. pasta, preferably rigatoni*, cooked according to package directions to al dente, adding 1-2 tablespoons coarse or rock salt to boiling water, pasta water reserved
1 recipe for Tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, and carrot
1 or 2 large fresh artichokes, tough outer leaves pulled off and cut down, hair removed, and heart cut into slices (optional)*
1/2 cup of shelled English peas
1/2 cup young, tender shelled fava (broad) beans or lima beans
1 1/2 cups stemmed spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
12 asparagus spears, tough ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
Sea or kosher salt to taste
freshly ground Parmesan cheese

Prepare the tomato sauce according to the above recipe, adding the artichoke pieces (if using) into the simmering sauce at the same time you add the tomatoes. Begin cooking the pasta, taking care to salt the water and reserve at least half a cup of pasta water once pasta has finished cooking.

Once artichoke slices are tender (10-15 minutes), add the other vegetables and cook in the sauce another five to ten minutes, or until vegetables are cooked and tender.

Toss the sauce with the warm pasta, using small additions of the reserved pasta water to loosen the sauce and achieve desired consistency. Wait to season with salt and pepper (I prefer this sauce without pepper, as the vegetable flavors seem to stand out more this way) until finished adding desired amount of pasta water, as the water should be somewhat salty itself. Serve with the cheese sprinkled on top.

Notes: You may use any pasta for this recipe, though rigatoni or other “forkable” pasta is preferable to the spagetti you see in my pictures. I made it with rigatoni the first time, but was too rushed to take pictures, and only had spaghetti noodles in the house the second go round.

Look for Italian San Marzano tomatoes in the specialty Italian section of your grocery store. I have tried many Italian Roma tomatoes, and none break down and create a smooth, satiny sauce as well as the San Marzanos.

The fresh artichokes are nice in this dish, though they take a bit of work, so you may omit them if desired. I would not substitute canned, since canned artichokes are preserved in vinegar and would alter the entire flavor profile of the sauce. I did add some mushrooms in at the same time as the artichokes the first time around, and they were very good. Really, you could add just about any vegetables you like – or chicken (I added lemon rosemary chicken in the first batch) or shrimp, for that matter.

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A simple garlic broth with tortellini, tomatoes, and fresh garden herbs, and a lifelong friend, Amy

March 17th, 2010

Garlic herb soup with tomato and tortellini

There is something very special about the friends, and the foods, of our youth. We tend to carry them close to our hearts, and it is often these tastes, and these friends, that in old age if someone were to ask, “What meal do you wish to be your last?” or, “What friend do you want near?” that would prompt thoughts of cherished dishes from childhood, and of the dear friends kept close from our youth. During a time when we were more naive, more vulnerable, and exploring our identities without the expectations of adultishness holding us back, someone saw something raw, something beautiful, something lovable about us – and chose us. A friend. An Amy.

The story of this soup, of Amy, and of my interests in cooking and art intersect in a beautiful weave that I am happy not to unravel. Although I was acquaintances with Amy early in college, it was not until she lived a few dorm rooms down the hall during our junior year that I truly got to know her. I can still remember her room – light, with a pale soft sea green comforter and white billowy pillows, everything perfectly in its place, it breathed beauty and effortlessness, so unlike my own room – always struggling to keep its clothes in its drawers, and with papers overflowing binders and tucked every-which-way into book sleeves.

Garden rosemaryGarden rosemary

Everything about Amy breathes artistry. Art comprises the essence of her being, and always has, from what I can tell. Wherever Amy goes, whatever Amy does, she creates beauty. She is purposeful, methodical, deliberate, inspiring. Very few people have influenced me like Amy. She is a photographer, a designer and painter, a video editor, a world traveler, a uniquely creative cook, and most importantly, and often undeservingly on my part, a lifelong friend.

And it is Amy who first made me this soup about a decade ago when we became roommates the summer after that junior year in college, and I still make it several times a year. I’d say this is a lifelong soup.

Garlic smashed

The base of the soup is a simple garlic broth created by crushing and sautéing a whole head of garlic in a bit of olive oil, just until the garlic has infused the oil and is no longer raw, but not yet brown, and then vegetable or chicken stock is added, along with a few sprigs of fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, and a handful of fresh parsley.

We keep an herb garden not far from our kitchen out the back door, where I tend to use whatever fresh herbs are thriving and available. In this case, rosemary, oregano, and sage.


From here, the soup can take many forms. You can add a wide variation of vegetables, greens, beans, pastas, chicken or tofu, or even a bit of saffron, but the addition of tomatoes and tortellini is how Amy introduced it to me, and thus it has become my way.

At its heart, it is a variation of the classic Italian dish “Tortellini en brodo” or “tortellini in broth” and it is one of the most satisfying meals I can imagine. Chewy al dente tortellini filled with little wedges of soft cheese are nestled next to a savory broth, richly flavored from the infusion of garlic, ripe tomatoes, and fresh Italian herbs. Finished with sprinklings of fresh parsley, gratings of a nice aged parmesan reggiano, and a hot out of the oven tear of crusty bread, and at this moment I cannot find room beside my adoration for this soup to think of a meal I love more.

Garden OreganoGarden sageGarden SageGarden oregano

At an influential time in my youth, it was Amy who first introduced me to such things as making homemade pasta, cooking with and growing my own fresh herbs, using lavender as a spice, and unique twists on traditional favorites such as sweet potato quesadillas and mango salsa.

It was Amy who sparked my interest in photography, it was Amy who made up crazy silly songs with my brother and me and then animated my stuffed bear to sing along, and it was Amy who was there when my father died at the end of that summer in college; it was Amy who was still there six months later, not afraid to stand in the shadow of death or look me in the eye, and hold me as I cried… And it is still Amy who is there. Thank you, friend.

Beautiful Amy Amy in field of flowers. Photo courtesy of Amy’s sister in law, Cara Lavarone.

Simple garlic broth with tortellini, tomatoes, and garden herbs
adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (Tomato garlic soup with tortellini)

8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
3 cups diced tomatoes or 5 medium fresh tomatoes (about 4 cups chopped)
12 ounces fresh cheese filled tortellini
3 tablespoons minced fresh garlic (1 large or 2 small heads)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 sprig fresh sage
1 sprig fresh thyme
several sprigs fresh parsley and more, chopped, for serving
sea or kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
freshly grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

In a covered pot, bring the stock to a boil. In a soup pot on low heat, gently saute the garlic in the olive oil until golden, taking care not to let it brown. Add the boiling stock. Stir in the paprika. Tie the sage, thyme, and parsley into a little bundle with string, and add the “bouquet” to the pot (you may also chop the herbs and add straight into the soup – this is what I do). Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, add tomatoes, and simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust for salt and pepper to taste.

In a separate pot, cook tortellini until al dente, usually 4-5 minutes (check package directions) for fresh tortellini. When ready to serve, place tortellini in individual bowls and ladle the soup over them. Serve topped with grated cheese and chopped parsley.

Note: You may omit the tomatoes and/or the tortellini and add other pasta, vegetables, greens, potatoes, peas, chicken – so many possibilities! Also, this easily serves 6-8 people, so I often freeze just some of the broth to pull out and cook with a new package of fresh tortellini for an easy and delicious last minute meal.

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