Pasta with Olives and Feta in Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Do you find that in the springtime, as the days are longer and the air is warmer, you start craving lighter, fresher fare? Generally, so do I. Except that in Ontario, winter is never really over until it’s beach season. ‘Spring’ is just that transient time as our environment keeps us waffling between parkas and tank tops. I suppose that this means we are officially into spring, if you will, because Saturday was so glorious that I walked around outside in flip flops and a tee shirt. Today? I’ve been shivering since I woke up, and my flimsy spring jacket was traded back up for the pea coat.
This in-between weather keeps the palate confused. One day you’ll be craving Osso Bucco like your life depended on it, and the next it’s asparagus and goat cheese salad in a lemon vinaigrette. I’ve been roasting, baking and braising for the last six months though, so I’m torn between craving lighter, fresher foods and still needing the comfort of winter warmers. This super fast pasta kind of bridges the two. The sauce is light and flavorful, but you get the gullet rubbing fill of pasta and carbs. Sure, maybe I’m confused this time of year but at least our dinner wasn’t.
Also, before I get going, I feel that there’s something I should share with you: roasted red peppers are NOT my favorite. It’s the texture, mostly. And sometimes the taste. But mostly the texture (and taste). But when you puree roasted red peppers? Well, I think of it as culinary magic because they start out as something that I find generally abhorrent, and morph into a vivid bright sauce that I tend to be enamored with. So there you go – if you ever want to feed me something that I don’t like, just blend it up and I’ll consume with gusto!
The joys of red pepper sauces were taught to me in University by a Macedonian friend of mine. For the most part, going over to a classmate’s house/apartment/dorm after school you knew what to expect. If s/he was a generous soul they might put out pita and hummus or chips and salsa. Then there were the others who would ask, “Hey, can you just pick up a coupla things on your way over? Yeah, like a few bags of chips, some beer, pizza, OH and a bag of sour patch kids. Okay, see you in a few.” Kathy, however, would not be caught dead opening up a jar of bottled salsa and leaving it on the table. Going over to her house meant piles of pasta, stuffed peppers, fried cheese, salads….and all of it seemed to take no time to prepare!!
I always thought that a flavorful pasta sauce had to sit and simmer for hours on end, but Kathy showed me the error of my ways. The Macedonian pasta dinner that her mother had made for her, and the she used to make for me, went from fridge to plate in 20 minutes flat. I consider that to be a virtue. I also thank Kathy for her Macedonian hospitality which slowly started to rub off on the lot of us over time, so that ‘coming over to study’ meant less store bought dips and more quick but homemade quesadillas, warm spinach and artichoke dips, and top-your-own flatbreads.
Pasta with Olives and Feta in Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Serves 4 generously
- 500 g package of pasta *
- 1 whole bulb garlic
- 8 roasted red peppers (about 2 1/4 cups chopped)
- 2 tbsp + 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1.5 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 3/4 – 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes **
- 1 cup kalamata olives
- 1 bunch basil (about 1/4 cup chopped)
- 300 g feta cheese ***
- salt and pepper to taste
* We used a lovely Greek pasta that Peter gave to us when we went to his house to provide some tech support. And be ‘we’ I mean Mike. I sat and flipped through cookbooks as they did all that computer mumbo-jumbo stuff. And don’t go calling the troops on us for using Greek pasta in a Macedonian dish. Carbs have no borders, in my opinion. The best noodle shape for a sauce like this would probably be a fettucine or linguine, but when you have some fine looking spaghettini in the cupboard, well, who am I to judge?
** Some like it hot, and some like it not. We added 1 tsp of our fiery red pepper flakes and the heat was still very subtle.
*** We used a pungent but creamy textured Macedonian feta, but any good Mediterranean feta will do.
I keep roasted garlic around in the fridge on a pretty regular basis. After a long day the thought of a 20 minute weeknight dinner is rather appealing, and adding on an extra hour of waiting while the the garlic roasts just isn’t going to happen. I tend to prep and foil a few heads of garlic that I just tuck into the oven to roast when I’m cooking a casserole or savory baked dish. After all, five minutes of prep time and you’ll have roasted garlic for the next week.
But I digress. Preheat your oven to 350ºF. Cut across the top of a whole, intact bulb of garlic so that each clove is just slightly exposed. Drizzle with 1 tsp of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and wrap the whole thing up tightly in a piece of foil. Tuck the garlic into the oven to roast for 1 hour, or until it’s fragrant, soft, and the cloves are a lovely light caramel color.
Although I would (probably, maybe) never use a whole head of garlic to make 1 itty bitty bowl of pasta sauce, roasted garlic is mellow, sweet, and not as hhhhhheinously hhhhhhard on the breathhhhh as raw or lightly sauteed garlic.
When the garlic is roasted you can gently squeeze the base and the meltingly soft cloves will just ooze right out. Put the roasted garlic into a blender or food processor with the olive oil, red wine vinegar, pepper flakes and olive oil. Give the roasted red peppers a very quick coarse chop, if you wish, and add these in as well.
Give everything a good grinding of coarse pepper and puree away until a smooth sauce is formed. You can taste and season the sauce with salt at this point, but don’t forget that you’ll be adding in a good crumbling of salty feta and a few handfuls of briny olives.
I find that the easiest way to pit olives is to press down on them gently with the flat side of a heavy knife. However, the more satisfyingly messy way (obviously my favorite) is to firmly squeeze the olive between your thumb and forefinger until it bursts, inevitably squirting dark olive juice all over your kitchen. I think I enjoy living in squalor.
Discard the pits and give the olives a rustically coarse chop. Add the olives to the roasted red pepper puree.
Pull the leaves off of the basil stem and give them a good chiffonading (no, that’s not actually a verb and if you say you did a good ‘chiffonading’ people WILL laugh at you. Including me. Even though I just tried to pass that off in a sentence).
The easiest way to chiffonade herbs like basil is to gently roll them into a long packed parcel and thinly slice horizontally using a sharp knife. Basil bruises easily, so try not to press too hard on the weed-roll and the sharper your knife the happier you’ll be. Oh, and nothing serrated, please.
Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil and add your pasta, stirring occasionally until it’s cooked to your preference. Greek pasta tends to be a bit toothier with a slightly longer cooking time (10-12 minutes instead of 8-10) and lends itself nicely to an al dente pasta dish.
When the pasta is cooked you can give it a proper drain but don’t rinse, please! That starch will help the sauce to adhere to the noodles. Toss the noodles with the roasted red pepper sauce until everything is nicely combined.
Crumble in the feta and add your lovely basil chiffonade, giving everything one final stir.
I love slow roasting, braising, and long marinades. But on a Monday night? I like to get dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time. And by ‘reasonable’ I mean ’20 minutes or less’.
I think I’m just in love with the color of this sauce. It looked a little bit like Chey Boyardee, but there is no similarity in taste, to say the least.
Getting all carbed up means that I’m friendly again, and I think it’s been a good half hour since my last after-work snarl and snap.
Feta, I love you.
Salty, creamy, briny cheese,
we were meant to be.
Pureed peppers, so
fast and bright. Marinara
sulks in jealousy.
And apparently we weren’t the only ones who liked this pasta dish. Check out Mr. Greedy Guts over there, weighing the pros and cons of eating my pasta before deciding to just go for the basil instead. Sigh. I love him, but he’s just such a BAD cat.