During the summer of 2008, we took an extended family vacation to the Tuscany region of Italy. By extended, I mean multi-generational– my husband Kurt, my son Ken, my mother Tecla, my sister Tina, her husband Jeff and Jeff’s mom Lynn. We rented a villa just outside of Siena; it was a 17th (or was it 18th?) century structure that was divided into several homes. Our section consisted of two floors, each a separate apartment connected by a steep wooden staircase. There was no air conditioning, but none was needed with two-foot thick walls providing all the coolness of a root cellar. There was a swimming pool and outdoor shower for Ken in the back yard, which butted against a large field of pink and brown pigs. Olive trees surrounded the property as did the perfume of the lovely white jasmine flowers just outside the back door.
The lady who owned the property was a professor at the university in town; she had inherited the home from her parents. As part of our stay, we had her come and cook a Tuscan meal (it was a multi-course feast) during our stay.
All of us still talk about that meal. So many dishes, so many wines and so many things we had never had before, like crostini topped with a chunky spread of spleen (yes, spleen) and a tart stuffed with what Tina could best translate as “crab apple.” My favorite was the bread soup, ribollita, simple, but filling soup made from humble leftover bread and vegetables.
Fast forward to 2011. I am now obsessed with a Tuscan cooking show featuring Debi Mazar (of Entourage fame) and her husband Gabriele. Their recipes are uncomplicated Tuscan fare that highlight the freshness of a few key ingredients, unlike those on some of the other Italian cooking shows where the recipe’s ingredient list stretches the length of my arm.
One dish from the show that my family likes is a pasta dish made with cavatappi, Italian sausage and a handful of fresh herbs that are readily available at the grocery store. The recipe is here. I think the shape of the cavatappi is whimsical– hollow, twisted tubes of pasta which look like macaroni gone wild.
The unique flavor of the dish comes vegetable stock infused with saffron, plus rosemary and sage cooked with the sausage. Saffron will be the difficult item to find; it’s also pricey, but you only need a pinch. I’ve seen little pill box-sized quantities sold in higher end grocery stores. Spanish saffron is the best, but I’ve also used Greek. If you can’t find cavatappi, I think penne would work fine. The only ingredient change I make is the addition of more vegetable stock; I tend to need twice as much to have enough sauce for the pasta.
It’s a fast, easy dish and a perfect way for my family to “detox” after all the Thanksgiving feasting!
Here’s my stuff:
The only real prep is to rinse the herbs, pull the casings off the sausage and chop the onion. I don’t bother to chop it two different ways as the recipe states. I also put a pot of water on to boil.
I heat the vegetable stock in the microwave, add the saffron and leave it in the microwave to stay warm (one less pan to wash)! Steeping the saffron is necessary to release ALL its flavor.
Once I throw the pasta in the pot to cook, I start making the sauce. I heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion and sausage together. I add the rosemary and sage and cook a little longer, about 5 minutes.
Then I turn down the heat and add the wine.
When there is very little wine left, I add the saffron-infused vegetable stock and simmer everything together on medium low heat. The liquids are the sauce; so don’t let them evaporate.
Drain the pasta and add to your pan of sausage. Toss and cook on high til well combined. Add grated parmesan to your taste and correct for seasonings.
I bring my fancy olive oil (California Olive Ranch) for folks to drizzle on top if desired.