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Vegetarian Journal Nov/Dec 2001

Regional Italian and Sicilian Pasta Sauces

By Nancy Berkoff


Sauce: The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted a vice is renounced and forgiven.
                    - Ambrose Bierce

Sauces can be spooned on top of pasta, tossed with it, baked with it, or served separately. No matter how they are presented, pasta sauces are best when they are full flavored and full textured.

Italian sauces can be categorized by the ingredients they contain. Some olive oil-based sauces are briciolata (bread crumbs are sautéed in olive oil until crisp, seasoned with black pepper), pesto (olive oil puréed with raw basil, garlic, and pine nuts), or aglio e olio (high-quality olive oil combined with sautéed garlic).

Dairy-based sauces include Alfredo, paglia e fieno (which translates to "straw and hay," and is made with a combination of peas, cream, and spinach), and carbonara (a Roman sauce of eggs, cheese, and bacon). Vegan dairy sauces can be made with vegan soy cream. (Westsoy and other companies makes soy coffee creamers that can be used as substitutes for light dairy cream.) If soy creams are not available near you, soy sour cream can be thinned with soymilk to be used as a tangy cream substitute. Another alternative is to reduce soy or rice milk. This is done by slowly cooking the milk, stirring occasionally, until the total volume is reduced by one-third to one-half the original volume. This allows a lot of the water to evaporate, concentrating the flavor and the texture.

Tomato-based sauces, popular in Bologna and Naples, include tomatoes, wine, broth, garlic, chopped vegetables, and fresh or dried herbs as ingredients. Sugo di pomodoro fresco is a fresh tomato sauce, good to serve with freshly cooked pasta. It is an uncooked sauce, a simple combination of chopped tomatoes, green onions, garlic, basil, and oregano, with a dash of olive oil. Salsa napoletana is a cooked tomato sauce, meant to accompany both pasta and vegetables. Chopped onions, carrots, and celery are sautéed in olive oil, combined with wine and tomatoes, and seasoned with oregano, thyme, and pepper. It is allowed to simmer until very concentrated.

Another uncooked sauce is salsa verde. It can be made entirely in a blender or food processor. Fresh bread crumbs (not dried) are soaked in vinegar and then processed with fresh parsley, capers, garlic, and olive oil. Serve this with hot or cold pasta or vegetables.

Many sauces are very simple, but high fat, combinations. Aglio e olio is a classic example, a combination of olive oil and sautéed garlic. Burro e salvia (butter and sage sauce) is simply melted butter to which whole sage leaves are added and cooked until crisp. Primavera sauce is a combination of heavy cream and butter, to which chopped springtime vegetables are added.

High or low in fat, Italian sauces are meant to be used sparingly, to merely coat or "kiss" the pasta or vegetables. Traditionally, sauces are concentrated in flavor, meant to impart lots of zest with a small amount of volume. Sauce should be spooned lightly or tossed with pasta or vegetables right before serving, to showcase the texture of the pasta and the flavor of the sauce. Left to sit, texture turns soggy and the flavor dulls.

It's important to remember that the sauce should match the shape of the pasta. Each shape goes well with particular types of sauce. Spaghetti goes well with creamy or tomato-based sauce, while thinner pastas, such as vermicelli, linguine, and angel hair are better suited for olive oil-based sauces. Both thick and thin pastas go well with strongly flavored sauces, such as a tomato sauce flavored with garlic or red pepper flakes. Tube pastas, such as ziti, rigatoni, or penne go well with thick sauces, such as a tomato and vegetable sauce. Filled pastas, such as gnocchi, ravioli, and tortellini, need to have the sauce complement the filling; light sauces complement delicately flavored ravioli, and heavier sauces can keep up with heartier pastas. For example, a basil-and-garlic-filled ravioli goes well with a salsa verde, while an Alfredo sauce goes well with a tofu-and-walnut-filled tortellini.

Dessert pastas require special sauces. A poppyseed lasagna, popular in Northern Italy, would be served with a butter- (or vegan margarine-) based sauce. Hot buttered pasta is sometimes tossed with cocoa powder, golden raisins, candied orange peel, cinnamon, and sweet bread crumbs. In Northern Italy, buttered pasta is tossed with chopped nuts, sugar, and lemon zest. Fettucini can be served with a fruit purée, as can a dried fruit and nut lasagna.

Generally, white or cream sauces have a cream and butter base. You can do a vegan version with vegan margarine and soymilk (not lowfat, but lower fat; for authenticity, you don't want to eliminate all the fat). To make a basic white sauce, you will need a roux, a mixture of equal parts of fat and flour. To make one cup of white sauce, melt one tablespoon of vegan margarine and mix with one Tablespoon of flour to form a paste. Heat one cup of soymilk over medium heat. Quickly whisk in the roux, stirring hard, to avoid lumps and to maximize thickening. Remove the sauce from the stove, strain, and return to the stove. (Straining ensures smoothness.) Bring to a quick boil, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens to the texture you like. Once you have the basic sauce, you can make it sweet or savory. For an espresso sauce, whisk in coffee powder and vanilla extract. Sherry, sweet white wine, Marsala, or liqueurs such as amaretto can also be used to flavor and sweeten dessert sauces. Savory white sauces, such as Alfredo or primavera, are usually made with cream, cheese, and butter. Prepare a vegan version with soy- or rice-based cheese, soy sour cream, and vegan margarine or olive oil.

In many Italian dishes, the sauce makes the dish. For example, you can lightly sauté artichokes, mushrooms, and greens in olive oil, only until slightly wilted. Flavor them with fresh or dried basil, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes, and black pepper and toss with chopped pine nuts, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds. Quickly add this type of vegetable sauce to cooked pasta and serve immediately. You can also quickly bake this vegetable and sauce combination. Zucchini, fresh or cooked, dried beans, eggplant, greens, peas, and asparagus can also be used for sauces.

Pasta, polenta, and freshly baked bread call for wonderful sauces. So gather your pomodoro (golden apple, or Italian for tomato), your basil, and other vegetables in season and start saucing!


Ideas for Pasta

Here are some ideas for creating several dishes from one batch of cooked pasta:

I Cube tofu or fake meat and combine with cooked pasta and sauce.
II Purée leftover vegetables, heat, and thin with soymilk. Season with oregano and basil, and toss with cooked pasta.
III Cook pasta in vegetable broth and serve as a side dish.
IV Toss chilled, cooked pasta with chopped olives, garlic, parsley, and olive oil.
V Toss cooked pasta with sesame seeds, garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.
VI Toss cooked pasta with cooked peas and pasta sauce.
VII Use leftover pasta in a stuffing for tomatoes, peppers, or onions.
VIII Toss pasta with chopped, very ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, and olive oil.
IX Layer pasta with steamed, thinly sliced vegetables. Finish each layer with pasta sauce. Garnish with chopped fresh basil or chopped olives, and bake.


Tomato Sauce I
salsa di pomodoro
(Serves 5-7)

From Naples comes pommarola, the famous tomato sauce of Italy. There are many Neapolitan tomato sauces, and we have included several for you to try. Add fresh or dried herbs, pickled capers, chopped olives, fresh tomatoes, or onions to create new sauces. This basic tomato sauce freezes well.

4 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes or 4 cups drained, chopped canned tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

In a large pot, combine tomatoes and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring, for 30 minutes or until tomatoes are very soft and mushy. Remove from heat, stir in olive oil, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Total calories per serving: 127 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 13 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


Tomato Sauce II
Salsa napoletana
(Serves 4)

Use this Neapolitan sauce to top veggie pizzas, to toss with pasta, couscous, brown rice, or quinoa, or to top a grilled veggie sandwich.

13/4 cups drained, canned, diced tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped onions
5 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup chopped carrots
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons red wine, if desired

Place tomatoes in a large saucepan. Add onions, peppercorns, bay leaf, carrots, and garlic. Cook for 15 minutes, covered, over medium heat. Remove from heat and strain out veggies and bay leaf. Return to heat. Add thyme, olive oil, and red wine, and allow to simmer for at least 30 more minutes or until sauce is very flavorful and slightly thickened.

Total calories per serving: 102 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 144 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


Tomato Sauce III
Sugo di pomodoro fresco
(Serves 4)

This is an uncooked tomato sauce, great for fresh tomatoes that are ripe or overly ripe. This sauce is not meant to sit, as it is most flavorful freshly prepared and served. This sauce will not freeze well, so make just enough to top al dente pastas, rice, or steamed greens.

11/2 pounds (about 4 cups) peeled, seeded, and chopped fresh tomatoes
3 chopped green onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a glass or plastic bowl (not metal). Spoon over hot pasta and serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 105 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 2 gram
Sodium: 18 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


Green Sauce I
Pesto Sauce
(4-6 servings)

Genoa is the main city of Liguria, on the northwest coast of Italy. Genoa's traditional sauce is pesto, made with a mortar and pestle to crush pine nuts and herbs in order to extract flavor. We've modernized the technique, using less elbow grease and more electricity. Pesto is a high-fat sauce, so use it very sparingly. Coat hot or cold veggies with it, or serve with breadsticks.

1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup washed fresh basil leaves
4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
2 Tablespoons pine nuts
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.

Total calories per serving: 270 Fat: 29 grams
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: 2 gram
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Note: Pesto is usually made with basil and pine nuts. Some chefs like to use fresh spinach (not frozen) to replace some or all of the basil. Walnuts can be used to replace some or all of the pine nuts to create a new flavor.


Green Sauce II
Salsa Verde
(Serves 4-6)

Bread is an essential part of every Italian regional cuisine. This uncooked sauce utilizes extra pieces of bread, and imbues them with the flavor of Sicily. Use as a salad dressing for cold pasta, rice, or tofu, or for grilled vegetables.

3 slices white bread
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 Tablespoons capers
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Tear bread and soak it in vinegar for 10 minutes. Squeeze bread dry and place in a blender or food processor. Blend with parsley, capers, and garlic until just smooth. Add olive oil and blend only until just combined.

Total calories per serving: 127 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 16 grams Protein: 4 gram
Sodium: 298 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


Roasted Vegetable
Sauce Abruzzi
(Serves 8-10)

The wonderful farmlands of Abruzzi inspired this colorful sauce. Make several batches at once; serve one as a vegetable entrée, and purée the others to be used either as a sauce or as a soup with pasta, cooked beans, or polenta (cornmeal prepared as a thick cereal).

4 sprigs parsley
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 peeled garlic clove
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped bell peppers
11/2 cups peeled and diced boiling potatoes
3/4 cup diced zucchini

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place parsley, carrots, celery, garlic, and oregano in a food processor or blender and process until finely chopped. Grease a baking dish with olive oil. Layer remaining ingredients in the dish, sprinkling each layer with the parsley blend. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Serve as a casserole, or purée and serve as a sauce. After puréeing, the sauce can be frozen for up to 2 months.

Total calories per serving: 69 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 10 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


Garlic and Oil Sauce aglio e olio
(Serves 5-7)

Although fairly high in fat, this backbone of Southern Italian cuisine is meant to be used sparingly, merely to coat pasta or vegetables. Be sure to allow the garlic to become only golden brown, never to scorch. Burnt garlic gives bitterness to cooked dishes. Add finely minced vegetables or onions to create new flavors.

3/4 cup olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup fresh, chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon white pepper

Heat olive oil in a frying pan for 2 minutes. Add garlic, and cook over low heat, stirring, until garlic is golden (not brown, which will taste terrible), about 3 minutes. Stir in parsley, oregano, and pepper. Cook and stir for one minute.

Total calories per serving: 293 Fat: 32 grams
Carbohydrates: 1 gram Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: <1 grams


Pasta Pugliesi
(Serves 4)

This is an example of a dish that creates its own sauce. As a variation, substitute finely chopped kale or broccoli rabe for broccoli.

4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 pound uncooked pasta, such as small shells, rotini, or fusilli
11/2 cups fresh broccoli florets
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley

Place 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan and heat. Quickly sauté garlic and red pepper flakes for 2 minutes. Set aside.

Cook pasta according to package until just tender (al dente). Drain, but save pasta water and cook broccoli in same pot. Drain and set aside.

Place remaining olive oil in a large pot and heat for 1 minute. Add parsley and stir to combine. Mix in pasta and broccoli, remove from heat, and serve over pasta immediately.

Total calories per serving: 541 Fat: 16 grams
Carbohydrates: 85 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: 14 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Meals for One or Two.


Excerpts from the Nov/Dec 2001 Issue


The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone who wishes to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Stephanie Schueler for converting this article to HTML.




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