February 3, 2012

Creamy Sausage Pasta with Purple Basil

I almost never follow a recipe for pasta. Pasta is one of those dishes that is immediately customizable. Would you like rigatoni with that? Fusilli? Angel hair? Done. Pancetta? Sausage? Goat cheese? Do it. Vegetables? Pretty much anything, depending on your pasta shape and color of sauce. For this pasta, I used a medley of tri-colored sweet peppers, rich green zucchini, and combinations of high-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano and herbed goat cheese. I made sure to buy hot Italian sausage, because we can take the heat. Sneak in a pinch of red pepper flakes if you have higher-than-average spicy tastes, and don't worry; the creamy, cheesy sauce that tops this pasta will soak up any superfluous spicy.

Like my stovetop macaroni and cheese, this dish brings back memories of experimenting with pasta combinations in Europe. I would use Frischk√§se, a type of German cream cheese, and whatever vegetables were fresh and in season. After a particularly memorable visit to Budapest on a 100-degree July day (which ended in a mammoth deluge of rain once I returned home to Vienna), I made a delicious Hungarian pepper-cream sauce with spiral pasta and downed it with an IKEA glass of fruity Hungarian wine. These little creative meals characterized almost an entire summer of cooking-for-one eating. Although the ingredients I use today are probably a little fancier than the ones I found at my corner grocer in Vienna, I sometimes miss the creaminess of Frischk√§se, the freshness of herbs, the homemade quality of local sausages. Not to mention the sweet country Rhine wines that would usually accompany these pastas and the squares of milky Alpine chocolate that almost always followed them.

This creamy, spicy dish is perfect with lots of vegetables and hot Italian sausage. Purple basil gives it a unique, stand-out quality. Basil, which usually takes a back seat to other Mediterranean flavors in a pasta dish, is suddenly front-and-center in this one. Nestled among those rich strands of nutty whole wheat pasta, purple basil balances the spiciness of the sausage and gives this dish a pop of wintry color that is perfect for creative pasta days.

Creamy Sausage Pasta with Purple Basil
Serves 2 (easily doubled or tripled)

4 ounces whole wheat spaghetti or rigatoni
16 ounces hot Italian sausage, casing removed (I used chicken Italian sausage. If using pork sausage, use only 8 ounces.)
1 zucchini
5 small peppers, sliced
4 cloves garlic
3/4 cup milk, any fat content
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 ounces soft goat cheese
1 ounce Parmigiano-reggiano, finely grated
6-8 leaves purple basil or regular basil, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside and reserve a tiny bit of the starchy cooking liquid, about 1/8 -1/4 cup.

Cook sausage, out of casing, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon until brown and fragrant. Add garlic and cook until just brown. Add vegetables and cook about 2 minutes longer, until zucchini and peppers turn a bright, rich color. Sprinkle with basil and set aside.

Prepare the roux. On medium-high heat, whisk milk and flour in a small saucepan until bubbling and about the consistency of cream. Add goat cheese and half of the parmesan and cook on low heat until melted. Add salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and plenty of freshly-ground pepper.

Combine pasta and sausage mixture and add cheese sauce. Toss until just combined. Serve hot with extra basil and parmesan.

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