Vegetarian Pasta Sauce for One

For the last few years, while the rest of our family is devouring the turkey at Thanksgiving or a leg of lamb at Easter, our vegetarian grandson has been treated to a main dish of macaroni and cheese. He likes mac and cheese, but I thought the time had come to make something a little more fancy for his plate at our holiday table.

I first thought about making vegetarian meatballs. There are dozens of recipes on line. However, since we buy the turkey and leg of lamb, I decided that I should not feel bad about buying the meatballs. The problem is finding them at the supermarket. I hated to do it, but I finally asked a clerk if the store had any.

I found out that I had been looking in the wrong frozen food section. Vegetarian meatballs are not shelved with the other vegetables where they belong. Instead, they are craftily concealed next to real meatballs made with honest-to-goodness beef and pork in packages disguised to look like packages of the real thing.

When I got home with the “Meatless Meatballs,” I read the cooking instructions on the package. The preferred method was to simmer the balls in sauce, which was just fine with me. All I had to do was to make a vegetarian sauce and cook some pasta to give Number One Grandson his special entrée for the dinner.

Of course I checked the web for vegetarian pasta sauce recipes and found dozens of them. Most called for adding vegetables. Adventurous cooks used squash, mushrooms, peppers, spinach, arugula, olives, celery, carrots and more esoteric ingredients to add different flavors.

Some of them looked quite interesting, but I was looking for something simple that I could make for one hungry teenager. There were simple recipes, but most called for puréeing the tomatoes and other ingredients to make a smooth sauce. I thought that a sauce with texture might be a better choice, so I decided to work up a vegetarian version of our regular spaghetti sauce sized for one or two servings.

Here is what I did.

INGREDIENTS:

1 T olive oil
1/4 cup onion
2 cloves garlic
3 or 4 Roma tomatoes
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1/4 – 1/3 tsp. fennel
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. basil
1/16 tsp. red chili flakes
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 – 1/2 cup green bell pepper
Parmesan cheese

PROCEDURE:

Clean and chop a fourth cup of onion into a quarter-inch dice. Remove the paper and stem ends from the garlic cloves and mince them. Coat the bottom of a saucepan with a tablespoon of olive oil and set the pan over low heat. Put the onion and garlic into the pan and stir the vegetables every minute or so.

Wash and remove the stem ends from the tomatoes and chop them into a quarter to half-inch dice. Add the tomatoes to the pan onion once the onion is translucent. Raise the heat slightly and cook the tomatoes for two or three minutes, then add the can of tomato sauce.

Put the fennel, oregano, basil, chili flakes, black pepper and salt into a mortar and grind them to medium. Stir the spices into the sauce along with a half teaspoon of sugar. Simmer the sauce for about ten minutes.

Wash the pepper, remove the stem and white membrane and chop the pepper into a quarter-inch dice. Stir it into the sauce, bring it to a simmer and cook for four to six minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Serve with meatballs (real or meatless) if you like or as is over ravioli, tortellini or any pasta cooked to al dente. Offer Parmesan cheese at the table.

NOTES: Obviously you can easily double or triple this recipe and also adjust the seasoning to your taste. Don’t succumb to the temptation to omit the chili flakes, as they give the sauce a little zip to contrast with the blandness of the pasta. If you don’t have chili flakes, you can use hot sauce or ground cayenne pepper. You can substitute any kind of sweet pepper if you don’t have a green bell pepper on hand.

Linda’s Cranberry Salsa

Fruit salsas are examples of fusion cuisine, which combine recipes or ingredients from two different cultures. Rick Bayless, the Oklahoma kid who abandoned barbecue and took up with tacos, says that fruit salsas apparently originated in the United States but have been infiltrating Mexican cuisine. He should know, since he and his wife Deann spent over six years researching Mexican cooking before publishing Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico in 1987.

Linda’s Cranberry Salsa is a good example. It combines traditional ingredients of Mexican salsas—jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and onions—with fresh Wisconsin cranberries. I got the recipe from my sister Patsy in an email which began with a question: “Did I ever give you a recipe for cranberry salsa?”

She had not, but I am always interested in new family recipes. Patsy explained that she got the recipe from Linda, a friend who worked with her at the hospital in Hayward. Linda turned out to be a classmate of mine who shared some of my interests and was on the staff of the school newspaper and competed in forensics.

When I asked Linda how she learned to make this salsa, she told me that she wasn’t sure, but that she thought a friend of hers who lives in Green Bay gave it to her many years ago. Linda liked the salsa and told Patsy about how good it was, prompting my sister to ask for the recipe. Linda obliged, proving once again that we all benefit from an ancient tradition that is still a friendly custom.

To be painfully honest, I had my doubts about this recipe when Patsy sent it to me. Cranberries and jalapeños with cilantro and cumin? No way! But when she told me that she makes a batch every fall when fresh cranberries become available, I decided to try it. She’s a good cook. I now have to agree with her conclusion: “The salsa is sweet, but oddly enough the bite from the jalapenos and the salt from the chips (I use mulitgrain Scoops) made it taste good.”

When I offered a sample to our neighbor Jill, she hesitated before saying she would try some. Later she confessed to the same doubts I harbored, but she now wants to make more herself and has asked for the recipe.

Cranberries are plentiful now, and you can find jalapeño peppers and cilantro at your local supermarket. Now’s the time to treat your football fans to a batch of Linda’s cranberry salsa.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
4 cups cranberries
2-3 jalapeño peppers
1 T cilantro
2-3 green onions
1/2 tsp. cumin
Dash of salt
1 T fresh lime juice (half an average lime)

PROCEDURE:

Wash the cranberries and jalapeño peppers. Coarsely chop the cranberries.

Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and bring the mixture to a boil Reduce the heat and boil slowly for ten minutes without stirring to make a thin syrup.

Prepare the vegetables while the syrup is cooking. Cut the stems from the peppers, slice them into quarters and remove the seeds and white membranes. Then slice each quarter in half and chop the peppers into a quarter-inch dice. Clean and cut the onions into eighth-inch slices, discarding the root ends. Wash and chop the cilantro medium fine.

After the syrup has cooked for ten minutes, pour it into a mixing bowl and allow it to cool slightly, four or five minutes. Wash a lime and juice half of it.

Add the cranberries, peppers, cilantro, onions, cumin, salt and lime juice to the syrup and mix lightly. Taste and adjust the flavors as you wish. You may want to add a little more cilantro, cumin or lime juice.

Refrigerate the salsa for at least an hour. Serve at room temperature with tortilla chips or dippers.

NOTES: The flavor improves if you allow the salsa to rest for several hours or overnight so the flavors can blend. When you adjust the seasoning, be careful not to add too much salt. Keep in mind that tortilla chips usually are quite salty.

My brother-in-law Patrick grew up around a lot of Scandinavians and acquired their preference for less spicy foods. He likes a mild version of this salsa with only one jalapeño. As Pat says, “You can make it exactly the way you like it.”

If you don’t have a food processor (like us) or a food chopper, you can just cut the cranberries into fourths.