Italy is my dream holiday destination.
When my parents went on a Europe tour a couple of years ago, I did a lot of research for their trip. My mind is flooded with exotic images of Tuscan landscapes, Cinque Terre, Italian Alps and so on.
Any Big B fan of my generation grew up fantasizing about Zeenat and Amitabh enraptured in amore, gliding along a Venetian canal, singing ‘Do Labzon Ki Hai Dil Ki Kahani’. What Desi girl hasn’t secretly dreamed of a honeymoon in Venice?
BTW, this post has 3800+ words, 33 images and 2 videos – I suggest you settle down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine – I promise you won’t be bored!
When Del Monte India announced their Italian Escapades contest, I was struck dumb. Just the tiniest chance of actually winning a 7 day trip to Italy overwhelmed me. Add a food tour and cooking classes from a Nonna! For a few days, I refused to let myself dream. But part of me was thinking of recipes in the background.
Del Monte has conquered the pasta market in India, I think, mostly because their pasta is available even in small grocery stores. No need to travel long distance to a specialty store to get pasta now!
Italian food always seems robust and plentiful, the kind you can enjoy with a large family. Del Monte India asked us to create a pasta dish from the heart, so I started thinking about what Italy and Italian food signified. I received the Chifferi Rigati from Del Monte India, which is like an elbow macaroni but with rigati or ridges. This kind of short tubular pasta is perfect because it holds on to the sauce.
I wanted my pasta dish to symbolize everything I associate with Italy. I also wanted to try and represent the different regions and ingredients like spinach which is a star of Tuscan or Florentine cooking, the white cannellini beans of the pasta fagioli soup that is famous in Venice, and of course a robust red sauce that pretty much represents Italian food.
So I present Pasta Italia: Tour of Italy. Yes, I have deliberately chosen the colors of the Italian flag. This pasta is made of three different sauces. They represent the basic pasta sauces that are famous in Italy – a green pesto, a cheesy white sauce and a tomato based sauce, but all very innovative with my twist. Every sauce uses different herbs. So together, this pasta dish is like a culinary tour of Italy.
If your family is anything like mine, everyone has different tastes. Mom wants a cheesy white sauce, dad wants a tomato based spicy sauce, I like the freshness of the pesto, and the sibling wants everything at once.
Pasta Italia is perfect for a large family gathering because it feeds a crowd and satisfies a variety of tastes. Combined with some buttery garlic bread, it is the perfect family feast.
Pasta Italia: Tour of Italy – The Inspiration!
Being a food blogger, I am always on the hunt for unique or innovative recipes. And I have found inspiration in the most unlikely places. A street vendor selling guava reminds me they are in season, and then when I am plotting a recipe, I remember the guava and try to incorporate it into the recipe. I made a plum salsa just last week to go with my grilled tofu.
When I heard of the #ItalianEscapades challenge, I decided right away that I wanted to showcase the varied cuisine of Italy. Considering how big the country is, and the different regional influences, it was hard to incorporate everything into a single pasta dish.
I thought of the Primavera which literally means ‘spring’ and discarded the idea because it is not the season for using Spring vegetables like peas. Baked pastas were discarded because everyone doesn’t have an oven.
I definitely wanted to use spinach because it is a mainstay in Florentine cooking. Venetian or Veneto cooking is known for the pasta fagioli soup with cannellini beans. Then the pomodoro sauce with simple tomato and basil is the most basic of sauces. Bolognese is another signature Italian pasta dish.
My challenge was to showcase the maximum aspects of Italian cooking and also keep them vegetarian. Italians love to cook with a lot of different meats. Their antipasto is legendary, for example. And they use bacon or pancetta to flavor their sauces.
Frankly, I want to win this contest and I lay awake at nights trying to think of the right recipe. I had a surreal dream about Olive Garden (famous Italian restaurant in the US). I was enjoying a meal with some old friends, folks I have not seen in over 10 years, and I had a lightbulb moment. I would do a pasta medley, or a bottomless pasta bowl.
Pasta Italia: Tour of Italy – The Concept
The concept of Pasta Italia or ‘Tour of Italy’ was born. I decided to do a ‘flag of Italy’ with green, white and red colors. The green sauce would be a pesto, the white sauce something based on Alfredo sauce which I love so much, and the red sauce a robust tomato based sauce.
I went for spinach in my pesto because spinach represents the cooking of Tuscany or Florence for me. I am using sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts or pinoli because they are easily available locally and much cheaper. Basil is the heart of my green pesto and a dash of parmesan adds nuttiness. Good quality extra virgin olive oil is a must!
This spinach and basil pesto transforms me to Firenze (Florence), to the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, Michaelangelo’s David, the Uffizi gallery and Tuscan landscapes.
The white sauce in my Tour of Italy is authentic yet innovative. White, cheesy, béchamel based sauces are typically very high in calories. I do away with all that by using a cauliflower based sauce. Instead of the pancetta, I am using a smoked cheese to add a similar flavor. A little cream and parmesan are enough to add richness. Cannelini beans or white beans are the star of the pasta fagioli soup so famous in the Venice region. Flat leaf parsley adds some freshness to this creamy sauce.
My Low Fat Cheesy White Sauce with cannellini beans takes me to the canals of Venezia or Venice, to the gondolas of the Grand Canal, to the Piazza San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs and to St. Mark’s Basilica.
The red sauce in my Tour of Italy is very simple, but has a lot of depth of flavor. I am using roasted red peppers, the sweet peppers that are used so much in Italian cooking. I am using stewed tomatoes here, and some white wine to add sweetness. Olives are another mainstay of Italian cooking, and they add a touch of saltiness to this sauce.
My Roasted Red Pepper and Pomodoro sauce in my Tour of Italy takes me to Roma and the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.
Tour of Italy represents all the elements of Italian cooking – fresh produce, herbs like basil, parsley and oregano, parmesan cheese, extra virgin olive oil, olives and the most important, love.
I present this pasta dish from the bottom of my heart and hope that you will enjoy at least some part of it.
Don’t worry if you have never cooked pasta before. My step by step detailed instructions will help even the most novice cook.
Basic Tips for Cooking Pasta
- Pasta cooking time varies based on brand. So always follow package instructions.
- Use plenty of water to cook pasta and use a large pot.
- Liberally add salt to pasta water because this is the only time you can season the pasta itself.
- Cook pasta al dente or slightly undone. The pasta will continue cooking by residual heat and will also cook a bit in the sauce.
- Never wash cooked pasta – this will wash away the starch and prevent sauce from sticking to it.
- Drain pasta and immediately add into half the sauce. Toss the pasta lightly and then serve remaining sauce on top in the plate or on the side.
- Use a mixture of butter and extra virgin olive oil for your sauce. Oil increases smoking point of butter and prevents it from burning or browning. And extra virgin olive oil adds its own unique flavors.
- Sauté garlic on very low heat and let it flavor the oil. Do not let it brown. Unlike Asian cooking, Italian cooking does not use burnt garlic. Also, burnt garlic becomes bitter.
- Use good quality cheese rather than processed cheese. One tablespoon of good cheese will give much more flavor than one cup of average cheese.
- Use just enough sauce to coat the pasta. Sauce should not run around the pasta like a gravy.
Pasta Italia Sauce 1 – Spinach and Sunflower Seed Pesto
Pesto is so easy and flavorful, it is perfect for someone new to Italian food. I am using spinach to add some extra fiber and nutrition. Spinach makes this vegetarian dish hearty and robust. I also found that the combination of basil and spinach works really well – they both mellow each other out.
Sunflower seeds are easy to procure in India and they are pretty economical compared to walnuts or pine nuts which are typically used in pesto. Raw garlic adds a pungent kick and is also good for your heart. Parmesan cheese adds texture and saltiness, and extra virgin olive oil helps emulsify everything while imparting classic Italian flavor.
Equipment for Spinach and Sunflower Seed Pesto
Food Processor/ Chopper with S blade
8 inch Calphalon Stainless Steel pan or nonstick pan
Ingredients – Spinach and Sunflower Seed Pesto
2 cups spinach tightly packed
2 cups basil tightly packed
¼ cup sunflower seeds
4-5 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp parmesan cheese
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp black pepper crushed
Salt to taste
Method – Spinach and Sunflower Seed Pesto
- Clean and pluck the basil and spinach leaves.
- Put spinach and basil leaves in a colander.
- Boil water in a large pot.
- Assemble ice water in another bowl or vessel.
- Pour boiling water over the spinach/ basil in the colander.
- Immediately transfer spinach/basil to ice water bath. This will stop cooking process and keep them green.
- Squeeze the leaves tightly to remove all water.
- Lightly toast sunflower seeds in a pan until the raw smell goes away. Cool completely.
- Grind the pesto in a food processor or mixer with S blade.
- Add the sunflower seeds and garlic and pulse until coarsely ground. Now add the spinach/basil and other ingredients gradually and add some oil. Keep pulsing and adding more oil until a slightly coarse paste is formed.
- You can add some water to reduce quantity of oil, but add it spoon by spoon.
- Season with salt as needed and transfer pesto to a bowl.
- Spinach and sunflower seed pesto is ready to be tossed with our Del Monte pasta.
This recipe makes 2 cups of pesto, enough for 4 generous servings of pasta.
Pasta Italia Sauce 2 – Low Fat Cheesy White Sauce with Beans
Alfredo Sauce is my absolute favorite when it comes to pasta sauces. But it is made with butter, parmesan cheese and cream – not very figure friendly or heart friendly. My low fat cheesy white sauce uses a common vegetable – cauliflower! Cauliflower is abundantly available anywhere in India and adds body to this sauce. But you will never guess it while tasting or looking at this sauce. I wanted to add a smoky component, so I am using smoked gouda cheese here. I would have liked to use pecorino romano in addition to parmesan but romano was 7250 per kilo – not affordable for sure!
I am using local cauliflower, garlic, smoked Gouda cheese from Kodai Farms and parmesan cheese from the new Corona Dairy – all local ingredients but the flavor here is totally Italian.
I am using cannellini beans or ‘fagioli’ from a can, but chickpeas will also work well here. The beans add a robust component and make this so Italian. The inspiration for this dish is definitely the cheesy Alfredo or parmesan sauce and the pasta fagioli soup.
If you are not a fan of smoky flavor, you can use regular gouda or just more parmesan cheese. Also, the Kodai Farms cheese was extremely smoky so I used very little. You can use more or less depending on the brand of cheese you use.
Flat leaf parsley with its fresh, vibrant earthiness is the perfect herb for this pasta. This recipe will make 2.5-3 cups of thick sauce.
Equipment for Low Fat Cheesy White Sauce with Beans
4 Quart Sauce Pan
8 inch stainless steel pan
Ingredients – Low Fat Cheesy White Sauce with Beans
3 cups cauliflower florets
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp garlic chopped
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ cup milk
3 Tbsp cream
½ tsp black pepper crushed
3 Tbsp parmesan cheese
1-2 inch piece smoked Gouda cheese
1 cup cannellini beans
Salt to taste
2 Tbsp Italian/ flat leaf parsley chopped
Dash of nutmeg (optional)
Method – Low Fat Cheesy White Sauce with Beans
- Boil water in a sauce pan. Add cauliflower florets and boil them for 5 minutes until tender.
- Drain the cauliflower and let it cool.
- Heat butter with a touch of oil in a pan. Sauté chopped garlic on very low heat until it changes color slightly (do not burn).
- To a blender, add steamed cauliflower, garlic with butter, milk and cream. Blend until smooth. Add a little more milk or water if needed to make a smooth paste.
- Transfer blended sauce to a stock pot. Now add the parmesan and gouda cheeses, black pepper, olive oil and mix well.
- Bring to a gentle boil on low heat and switch off the heat. Taste for salt and add it if needed.
- Add chopped parsley to the sauce and mix it in. Grate in a dash of nutmeg if you like (Italians always add a dash of nutmeg to white sauces and greens).
This recipe makes 2-3 cups of thick sauce, enough for 4 generous servings of pasta.
Pasta Italia Sauce 3 – Roasted Red Pepper and Pomodoro Sauce
The pomodoro sauce or tomato sauce is the most basic of Italian pasta sauces. I make this pretty frequently. I wanted to add more depth of flavor and I came across some nice sweet red peppers or red capsicum. I decided to fire roast these for more flavor. Puttanesca sauce is another of my favorites so I took inspiration from it and added olives to this red pepper sauce.
The brine from the olives nicely balanced the sweet peppers and tomatoes.
Since I had already used basil and parsley in the green and white sauces, I chose oregano for this sauce. Oregano has firm place in a pasta sauce, I feel, and no Tour of Italy would be complete without this herb. Wine is another ingredient that is used commonly in Italian cooking, and I was lucky to get a 2007 vintage Chateau Indage on sale.
This roasted red pepper sauce is so flavorful, you will be licking the bowl for sure.
I suggest using San Marzano or any kind of Italian sweet tomatoes for this sauce (Del Monte, please market these in India). If you use local plum tomatoes, spend more time in simmering the sauce, and be ready to add more sugar to get the right flavor.
Equipment for Roasted Red Pepper and Pomodoro Sauce
3 Quart sauce pan
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Ingredients – Roasted Red Pepper and Pomodoro Sauce
2 red bell peppers or capsicum
400g stewed tomatoes
1 shallot or ½ small onion chopped
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp garlic chopped
2 Tbsp black olives sliced
½ cup white wine (optional)
½ tsp oregano dried
½ tsp black pepper crushed
1-2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp parmesan cheese
Method – Roasted Red Pepper and Pomodoro Sauce
- Wash the bell peppers and lightly brush with oil. Roast them on the gas flame until charred. Alternately, you can roast them in the oven.
- Cover the charred peppers immediately with cling wrap or lid and set aside.
- After peppers cool, peel them and roughly tear into pieces. Discard seeds and black skin.
- Add the peppers and tomato to a blender jar and puree well. It can be as chunky or smooth as you want it.
- Heat butter and oil in a sauce pan.
- Add the garlic and sauté on low heat. Add the onions and sauté until they soften.
- Now add white wine and cook it out until reduced. If you don’t want to use wine, that is OK. A splash of balsamic vinegar will also work well here.
- Add the blended tomato/ pepper, black pepper and sliced olives.
- Bring to a boil and simmer.
- Add parmesan and sugar and crushed oregano. Add salt later if needed.
- Simmer sauce until it coats the back of the spatula.
- Switch off heat.
This recipe makes 3 cups of sauce. And 4 generous servings of pasta with extra sauce.
Pasta Italia Side – Garlic Bread with Compound Butter
The perfect pasta is incomplete without crispy garlic bread. I am going to show you the easiest way to make compound butter or garlic parsley butter. This will make your garlic bread sing.
You can roll this butter in some parchment paper and refrigerate to use later too.
Equipment for Garlic Bread
optional – pan
Ingredients for Garlic Bread
1 Loaf Italian Bread or baguette
50 g butter
3 cloves garlic minced
1 Tbsp parsley chopped
Method for Garlic Bread
- Take some soft room temperature butter in a small bowl.
- Grate in 3 cloves of garlic.
- Add very finely chopped flat leaf parsley.
- Mix well and set aside for flavors to marinate.
- Slice Italian bread and slather with this garlic parsley butter.
- Put in the oven at 200C very close to top rack. Turn after 5 mintues.
You can also toast this in a pan on the gas stove.
Pasta Italia – Boiling Pasta and Mixing in Sauces
Once our sauces are ready, we can now boil the Del Monte pasta. Pasta should be boiled just before you are ready to serve.
Equipment for Boiling Pasta
6 Quart Pasta Pot with Insert
Ingredients for Pasta
6 cups Del Monte pasta
20+ cups water
Method for Pasta
- Bring pasta water to a boil. Use a pasta insert pot if you have one.
- Once water boils, add a generous amount of salt.
- Add the dry pasta and cook per package instructions. For Del Monte pasta, 8-9 minutes is enough for al dente level of cooking. Al Dente means there should be a bite to it.
- Drain the pasta and roughly divide in three portions in three bowls.
- Add half of the sauce – green, white and red to each bowl and lightly toss to mix in. You should have three colors of pasta in 3 different bowls – green, white and red.
- Add cannellini beans to the white pasta and mix in lightly.
Plating Pasta Italia: Tour of Italy Pasta
- To plate up a Tour of Italy, ladle a scoop of each type of pasta into a pasta bowl. Add some Roasted Red pepper sauce on top of the red pasta, some Spinach and Sunflower Seed Pesto on top of the green pasta, and some Low Fat Cheesy White Sauce on top of the white pasta.
- Garnish the green pasta with sunflower seeds, red pasta with some olives, and white pasta with cannellini beans.
- Drizzle extra virgin olive oil on the entire pasta and crack some fresh black pepper.
- Add some more parmesan cheese on top.
- Serve this Tour of Italy pasta, the Pasta Italia with hot garlic bread with our garlic parsley butter.
- Serve extra sauce on the side.
- Optionally, serve with white wine or drink of choice.
The biggest advantage of this Tour of Italy pasta is that everyone can choose what they want.
So if someone only wants Red Sauce pasta, serve it to them in a bowl. Or if someone just wants the cheesy sauce with their pasta, plate up a portion of the white pasta.
Any combination is possible and everyone is happy.
Pasta Italia: Tour of Italy pasta makes me think of sunshine, family, friends, laughter, love and fresh and simple food cooked from the heart – everything I associate with Italy.
This is my labor of love from my kitchen to yours, Del Monte India!! Now all that is missing is the Tuscan landscape for real :). I am ready to blog my way to Italy!!
Sending this on to Del Monte India’s #DelMonteItalianEscapades contest. Wish me luck 🙂