Sometimes what’s in our refrigerator dictates what’s for dinner—especially when it’s produce a little past its prime. This was the case last week when I found two red bell peppers on the decline as well as a large onion in a similar state. Not surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind was pasta.
Although my cookbook library yielded several recipes for pasta with red peppers, none of them appealed to me as much as the one my better half found online. It’s a recipe by Scott Conant from the March 2003 issue of Food & Wine magazine. It was that year that Conant’s restaurant L’Impero in Manhattan’s Tudor City was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as “Best New Restaurant” in the U.S. I remember dining there several times, as well as at what became his flagship restaurant Scarpetta, and always enjoyed his food.
Whereas some recipes called for roasting the peppers and others pureeing, Conant uses a sauté to cook the peppers with capers and crushed red pepper along with previously sautéed onions. When the vegetables are cooked, a splash of red wine vinegar adds some bright acidity, followed by the addition of a homemade tomato sauce which brings the sauce together. After a brief simmer, the pasta is added and tossed to coat with the sauce. Off the heat, the dish is finished with a shredded basil and a sprinkle of Romano.
This simple procedure yields a rich, savory, unctuous sauce that envelops the pasta with meltingly sweet onion and red bell pepper—truly a panoply of balanced flavors. The dish far exceeded our epectations.
Pasta with Red-Pepper Sauce (adapted from a recipe by Scott Conant in Food & Wine)
¾ pound penne rigate or any short pasta (I used fusilli.)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large red bell peppers—cored, seeded and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon drained capers
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade
2 tablespoons shredded basil
¼ cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese
1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup of the cooking water.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil until shimmering.
3. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat until softened and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the bell peppers, capers, and crushed red pepper, lower the flame to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are softened and lightly browned in spots, about 10 minutes.
5. Stir in the vinegar and cook until nearly evaporated, about 2 minutes.
6. Add the tomato sauce and cook for 5 minutes.
7. Add the pasta and the reserved cooking water to the sauce, season with salt and pepper and simmer, stirring, until thickened, about 2 minutes.
8. Stir in the basil.
9. Transfer the pasta to bowls, sprinkle with the Pecorino and serve.
Wine Pairing: Primitivo, Nero d’Avola