Sometimes the food I cook has really great pedigrees, backed up with thorough research and/or rich cultural tradition and/or a well-known chef’s recommendation. But equally often I cook by feel, scrambling around obstacles and gaps in my pantry. The results are weird American mutts, but more often than not they’re delicious mutts.
Case in point: this dish. It started with a pound of fresh Italian sausage. This is a staple in my house, since my husband loves its flavor. Usually I just use it in a simple tomato-based meat sauce, toss it with some pasta, and call it a night. And that’s almost certainly what would have happened here, if I hadn’t been completely out of canned tomatoes. And pasta, for that matter. Uh-oh.
So back to the drawing board: what did I have? No pasta, but I did have country-style egg noodles. That got me onto a whole thought process involving what I call “church basement fare,” the kind of simple, hearty dishes that can be made in big batches and served quickly and frugally to a large group of people. My mind wandered through chicken and dumplings and beef burgundy — not the French boeuf bourguignon, let’s be clear, but rather a distant cousin that may not even have any wine in it to speak of — and on into beef stroganoff. And I did have sour cream, but American-style beef stroganoff just sounded so terribly heavy.
Which is when I spied the jar of paprika sitting on the shelf, and everything clicked into place. Now, let’s be clear: even if we set aside the unorthodoxy of cooking Italian sausage instead of chicken or veal, this isn’t a proper paprikash by a long shot. For one thing, the cooking method is fairly different; it’s a quick simmer rather than the traditional long braise. For another, there should be easily twice as much paprika and sour cream in here, but I still wanted that church basement feel of soft flavor profiles, while also keeping it a bit lighter. (Well, as light as you can get with sausage in a cream sauce, served over buttered noodles. I’m a cook, not a wizard.) The carrots lend a bit a of sweetness, and the cherry tomatoes add some tart richness. I have a stash of oven-roasted cheery tomatoes in my freezer from the summer, but fresh cherry tomatoes are usually available throughout winter (and actually taste like tomatoes, unlike the larger winter tomatoes), so feel free to throw them in fresh; they’ll break down and melt into the sauce just as well. Served over buttered noodles with some bread, this was just perfect. It made me long for percolator coffee and layer cake, but my second helping filled me up so much that I couldn’t have had another thing! Well, maybe just half a cup of coffee…
Italian sausage paprikash
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. Italian sausage
1 medium onion, cut into half-petals (see what I mean)
4 carrots, peeled and cut into coins
1 c chicken stock or water
1 big handful of cherry tomatoes (about 20), fresh or oven-roasted, cut in half
1 Tbsp. paprika
2 Tbsp. sour cream
1 lb. egg noodles
2 Tbsp. butter
In a large pot over high heat, begin heating enough salted water to cook the noodles, covered.
While the noodle water is coming to the boil, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a wide, deep skillet, until it shimmers. Add the sausage, and break it up into bite-size chunks while it browns.
Once the sausage is browned all over, add the onions and carrots and saute till the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes). Increase heat to high and add a bit of the chicken stock, scraping up any browned bits that have stuck to the pan. Add the rest of the stock, along with the paprika and cherry tomatoes. Bring to a boil, them immediately reduce to a low simmer.
Once the noodle water is at a rolling boil — don’t worry if it’s not there when you get to this step; the sauce will hold — add the noodles and cook uncovered until al dente. (Probably about 10 minutes, but consult the package; in my experience you’ll want to undershoot a bit.)
When the noodles are ready, reserve a cup or so of the cooking water and drain them. Add the butter to the empty pot. Once the butter is mostly melted, add the drained noodles and toss to coat them with the melted butter.
To finish the sauce, bring the heat back to medium and stir in the sour cream. It will likely be very dry, especially if you’ve used oven-roasted tomatoes. If so, add enough of the reserved noodle water to make it saucy again. Taste the sauce and add salt if necessary.
Pile the noodles on a plate or in a bowl, and ladle the sausage mixture over the top. Serve with some hearty bread to sop up the rich orange sauce.
You could make this with just about any raw, bulk sausage. The flavor will change, of course, but I have trouble thinking of a sausage flavor that wouldn’t taste good. In fact, you could even make this with a smoked link sausage. It would be a totally different dish, which I think is great!
Going further afield, this general technique can be applied to almost any meat or vegetarian protein; I think it would be particularly great with seitan.