When I was a kid, my mom (and aunts and grandmas and neighbors) used macaroni as “the other pasta;” that is, other than “spaghetti,” translated as spaghetti noodles with tomato sauce.
Gone are the days when macaroni was used almost exclusively in the average American kitchen, from mac and cheese to pseudo goulash (a combination of ground beef, canned tomato sauce, cheese, and macaroni, which was really very good), to grade-school art on cardboard or a can spray-painted gold to pass as a pencil holder. Macaroni has its place in the middle of the pasta alphabet; there are many varieties before and after!
Pasta is as versatile as the sauces and dressings to be made for it. The number of pasta shapes and sizes defy imagination. The shapes come in “minis” too, sort of like our favorite cartoon characters that have been reduced—with all their idiosyncrasies intact— to babies. Baby Mickey, Baby Kermit, Baby Goofy. Miniature penne, fusilli, ziti. Dry pasta is a mainstay in many a kitchen because it has a long shelf life. Tightly wrapped or kept in airtight containers, dry pasta can be stored for years, if necessary.
I tried to replicate a 4-cheese ziti dish I had at a restaurant. I inadvertently picked up mini-ziti instead of the bigger variety at the grocery store. No matter, the cheese dish turned out well; perhaps not as creamy as the one at the restaurant, but good nonetheless. I had half a pound of leftover cooked mini-ziti so I made an impromptu salad with it: I added halved grape tomatoes, a few sliced green olives with pimentos, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and a dash of extra virgin olive oil. It was light, and fresh. Although the pasta was already cooked and cooled, the other ingredients could easily have been tossed with hot pasta and served as a side dish.
A former co-worker once told me how her grandmother made mashed potatoes mixed with cooked noodles as a side dish for pork chops. She said it was very good. It was served with gravy.
I don’t have that recipe. A bit of overkill to me. I’m content to leave it as her memory.
Simple Tomato Sauce for Pasta
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced
1/2 yellow onion, chopped medium dice
Vegetable oil, such as canola, or olive oil
One 28-oz can whole tomatoes in sauce or juice, hand squashed, mashed, blended, if desired—dependent on how you like your tomatoes*
Salt and pepper
Pinch of sugar
Water, heated, to keep sauce from sticking
Pepper flakes if desired. Optional
Sauté the onions in the oil until softened, or if you like, cook longer over medium heat until golden brown and caramelized. I usually just cook them till they’re soft, and beginning to brown, 5–7 minutes. Stir occasionally to brown evenly.
Add garlic and cook 30 seconds to a minute, stirring.
Carefully stir in tomatoes, squashed or otherwise. They’ll splatter all over if you aren’t a bit slow about it. Stir, bringing it to a boil and adding a little hot water (1/2 cup). Reduce heat if necessary to keep it from spattering all over (hard to do anyway, but you can prevent some of it) to a simmer and cook for about 1/2 an hour, stirring and adding water or wine, a bit at a time, to keep the sauce from scorching.
Meanwhile cook pasta of choice in boiling salted water. Some cooks, including Italian cooks, say not to let the water boil but simmer. Any way you do it, cook it to al dente if adding to the sauce to cook a bit more, or softer if you like it that way or are topping it with the sauce.
Pasta water can be added to the sauce to keep it from scorching. Not too much, you want the sauce to be a bit on the thick side, and flavorful, not watered down. Add salt and pepper to taste at the last 10 minutes, and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes are acidy or a little bitter.
Sometimes I add pepper flakes with the onions before adding the tomatoes. Or sprinkle them in at the last.
Serve sauce over cooked pasta, or add the pasta to the sauce to coat then serve. Parmesan cheese and additional black pepper is always a lovely topping.
I also like to add cooked sliced Italian sausage to this for variation.
*I like my tomato sauce more smooth than chunky, but the whole tomatoes have better flavor than those that have been pureed or sauced or diced. So I process them for the smooth texture with optimal flavor. Unless, of course, fresh tomatoes are used. That’s the ticket!