From Scratch: Pep up pasta sauce

Julie Falsetti

If spaghetti with jarred pasta sauce is part of your weekly dinner repertoire, try thinking outside the tomato.

One of my favorite pasta sauces is made with a sweet red pepper. It has no visible vegetables, but it's loaded with vitamin C and a host of other nutrients. The best part is that it requires no cooking and can be made in the time it takes the water to boil for the pasta.

Before you begin making Red Pepper Pesto, have on hand one large red bell pepper, fresh garlic, pine nuts, hot pepper flakes and extra virgin olive oil. The last of these ingredients is the most important, as this is the basis of the sauce. Since olive oil tastes best when it is freshest, I recommend olive oil from California. This is an easy way to support American farmers.

To get things started, put on a large pot of salted water to boil. No matter what your mother, grandmother or aunt told you, please don't add oil to the water — it prevents the sauce from adhering to the pasta.

Char: Take the red pepper, stick it on a long fork and hold it over the flame of your gas stove. Rotate the pepper over the flame until it is charred all over. If you don't have a gas stove, put it under the broiler. Keep an eye on it, as you have less control with a broiler.

After the pepper has charred, put it in a brown bag (a plastic one will do, too) and let it sit for five minutes. Then take it out and peel it under running water. Don't worry if you can't get off every bit of skin.

Finally, cut it in half and remove the stem and seeds. Cut it in pieces and toss it into the jar of a blender. Add a large clove of garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes. Hit the liquefy button on the blender for a few seconds. Voila, the sauce is done.

Pick your pasta: Because this is a hearty, thick sauce, you need a corresponding pasta to complement it. A good choice would be a pound of regular (not thin) spaghetti, rotini or penne. Right before draining the pasta, use a measuring cup to remove a cup of the pasta water. The starchy water helps the sauce adhere better to the pasta.

Place the drained pasta in a large bowl and toss with the sauce. Add some pasta water and toss again.

Serve with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Spring for the good stuff. The pre-grated cheese in those ubiquitous green cannisters uses chemical non-clumping agents that ruin the taste.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs monthly in The York Dispatch food section.