Cooking without a recipe. How do you do it?
You start with ingredients. My favorite way to do that is to open my refrigerator to see what’s there: on Friday night (when Craig was working late and his parents were flying in from Seattle) I saw carrots, I saw celery, I saw onions. I decided to cut them all up into big chunky pieces.
I also threw in three or four whole cloves of garlic, for good measure.
Once I had that, I poured olive oil into a skillet and turned on the heat. When the oil was hot (30 seconds later), I added all the vegetables and sprinkled them with salt.
I lowered the heat to give myself time to figure out the next move. Where did I want to take this? This could be a soup, this could be a sauce. I could add a can of drained beans and make a vegetarian chili. Instead, I added a can of whole tomatoes and decided to make a Rustic Vegetable Ragu.
Why rustic? Because the vegetables were chopped big and that’s pretty rustic (also, I didn’t peel the carrots).
I could’ve added red chile flakes and an anchovy to take things in a spicy, salty direction; instead, I added chopped fresh rosemary (which I also had in my fridge) and a bay leaf to take things in an earthier direction:
Also: I spied a Parmesan rind and added that too to lend its flavor to the proceedings.
This cooked on very low heat, bubbling very gently for an hour or so. When I tasted after an hour, I liked it but felt like a glug of balsamic vinegar might intensify the flavor. It did.
At that point, I could’ve served the finished ragu over polenta, but I had a box of ziti staring at me and being the pasta-lover that I am, I brought a big pot of water to a boil, seasoned it aggressively with salt, dropped in the ziti and cooked it one minute less than the package directions called for. Then I lifted it with a spider into the vegetable ragu to finish cooking.
Not bad, for a totally made-up dinner, eh?
Scooped into bowls and topped with Parmesan cheese, this was just as good as any dinner I might’ve planned more methodically. Instead, though, because I made it up I was able to use leftover ingredients, spend zero money and create something doubly satisfying because it was done to my taste.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is how you make up a recipe.
Recipe: Rustic Vegetable Ragu
Summary: Big chunks of vegetables in a zesty tomato sauce.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 onion, cut into big chunks
- 2 to 3 carrots, cut into big chunks (left unpeeled)
- 2 to 3 celery stalks, cut into big chunks
- 3 to 4 whole cloves of garlic
- 1 can of San Marzano peeled, whole tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Parmesan rind (optional)
- 1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar (or more to taste)
- 1 pound box of Ziti or Penne
- Fresh Parmesan cheese, for serving
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven for 30 seconds. Add all of the vegetables and season lightly with salt.
- Cook on medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes until the onions are translucent and the carrots start to soften. (For a much bolder flavor, you can cook these all much longer until they turn brown; but that’s a different kind of recipe altogether.) Add the tomatoes, the rosemary, the bay leaf and, if you’re using it, the Parmesan rind. Season with salt, bring to a boil and then lower to a very gentle simmer. Allow it to cook like that, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes, for about an hour.
- After an hour, taste the sauce and adjust with salt and the Balsamic vinegar.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season aggressively with salt (it should taste salty). Add your box of ziti and cook according to package directions but subtract a minute from the cook time; when it’s very al dente, lift the pasta into the pan with the sauce, turn up the heat, and cook until the pasta absorbs the flavors of the sauce. There should be very little liquid left at the bottom of the pasta pan.
- Serve in warm bowls and top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
My goal here was to have a higher ratio of vegetables to carbs but I didn’t want to waste 1/4 box of pasta, so ended up boiling the whole thing. If you want this to be healthier, try using half the pasta or eating it by itself like a vegetable stew.
If you like this, you could try making more of a Pasta Primavera, adding broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini to the mix. Let your imagination run wild.
Preparation time: 15 minute(s)
Cooking time: 1 hour(s) 10 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 6
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