a five-dollar meal


I did a little thrift store shopping this week and scored three excellent finds at places within minutes of our house. It was great because I’m not a hard-core shop-’til-you-drop type of person. I want to walk into the store, find what I need, and take it home. The rule for me tends to be that the harder I search for something, the less success I tend to have. Instead, the bounty appears, unexpectedly, when I’m simply browsing. In truth, the only endurance shopping I’m willing to do these days is usually food-related. It might be hunting down inexpensive vanilla beans, or discovering a deal on saffron or extra virgin olive oil. Discovering some new culinary delight, one that causes you to sigh with deep satisfaction, makes it worth the difficulty. 

I’ve got a bargain and a delight for you this week as well, and it’s what I’m making for Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge, an event happening all over the country this Saturday, September 17th. Just like a fast food value meal, this recipe is affordable, easy and quick. With the addition of a salad, bread and wine, the total rings in at approximately $4.35 per person. Most importantly, it’s made from scratch with real food ingredients, and the ultimate reward is in the eating.

The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan’s cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking without any adaptation of ingredients from the original recipe. Really, there’s no messing with perfection, or with the many years of tradition from which the recipe was passed down. The only thing I don’t do the same is tearing the fresh basil by hand. Instead I stack the leaves, roll them, and cut them into a chiffonade. You can use canned tomatoes instead of fresh; in her book Marcella specifically recommends using imported Italian plum tomatoes. I used fresh Roma tomatoes, and fresh basil from our garden. It’s a perfect end-of-summer meal, and pleasing to your pocketbook too. As a nice little budget bonus, I was even able to afford an inexpensive wine to go with the pasta. As everyone who eats at our house knows, it just isn’t dinner without a little wine.

Whole Wheat Penne with Tomato-Garlic-Basil Sauce

(sauce recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan)

2 lbs. fresh Roma tomatoes or one 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
5 cloves of garlic, minced
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup lightly-packed fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces whole wheat penne pasta

If you’re using fresh tomatoes, you’ll need to blanch them first in order to easily peel them. To do this, fill a large pan with water and bring to a boil. Carefully drop the tomatoes into the water and let blanch for one minute. Drain tomatoes into a colander, and let cool enough so you can handle them. The skin on the tomato should crack on its own and peel off easily. If the skin on a tomato remains intact, simply cut a slit in the side of the tomato and peel the skin off. Chop peeled tomatoes and place in medium saucepan with the extra virgin olive oil, the minced garlic, and about a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper. Turn heat to medium-high, then reduce to a medium simmer. Cook for 25 minutes until you see the oil begin to “float free” from the tomatoes. In other words, you should see a light layer or small scattered droplets of oil on the surface of the sauce and around the edges of the saucepan. The sauce will take on a rich sheen and the tomatoes will lighten in color slightly.

While the sauce is cooking, measure out 12 ounces of the whole wheat penne. Fill a large saucepan with water, and pour in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a palmful of salt. Begin to bring the water to a boil five minutes after you start cooking the sauce. Add the pasta once the water reaches a boil, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes until the pasta is still slightly firm, no longer hard but also not overcooked to the point of being too soft or mushy.

While the sauce and the pasta are cooking, chop the basil into chiffonade.

When the sauce is done cooking, adjust the taste for salt if needed. Add the basil chiffonade and stir to combine, reserving a small amount for garnish. Divide the pasta evenly between four bowls and spoon a generous cup of sauce over each. Garnish with extra basil chiffonade. Serve with a salad dressed with extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Cut a homemade or store-bought whole grain loaf of bread into thick slices and serve with a saucer of olive oil and salt. Don’t forget the wine!

Makes 4 servings

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