Erin's Veggie Tomato Sauce + Skillet Gnocchi

I have been fortunate enough to have some travel experiences that have been so wonderful that they not only produced lifelong memories, but they have become ingrained in my sense of self and shaped who I am. One of those experiences was when I took a course on the Mediterranean Diet in Tuscany, Italy.

The University of Alberta has a campus in Cortona, Italy, and for six weeks I was a student there. Cortona is the idyllic hillside town where Under the Tuscan Sun was filmed. It boasts stone-paved streets, quaint courtyards, historic churches, and in one charming building some U of A classrooms were housed.

Some nutrition classmates (Hi Kalin and Jeanelle!) and I took a course called “The Historical Origins of the Mediterranean Diet” in the year before we started internship. The course was three days per week, with two days consisting of class time and the third day involving field trips around Tuscany. On these trips we visited farms, made pizza, pasta and cheese, and yes, even drank wine.

You read that right – I drank wine. For university credit. In freakin’ Italy.

The Italians taught me that with a little bit of passion, even the most everyday activities can become outstanding. I learned that attention to detail is key in producing exceptional food, and that simple is often best. But most of all, I learned to ENJOY EVERYTHING, whether it be bread, sunsets, wine, friends – getting pleasure from everything was taken seriously.

Although some of my feelings of la dolce vita have faded since leaving Italy and returning to normal life, my love of food has blossomed. This week’s recipe is an example of Italian simplicity with a dietitian twist. I’m sure my addition of carrots and beans to tomato sauce will have some Italians cursing, I love the added vitamins and protein. The sauce is great because you can make large batches in advance, and freeze them for easy weeknight meals.

With the sauce pre-made, this weeknight meal uses only one pan to prepare, and comes together in about 30 minutes, thus leaving you with extra time to live as the Italians do – drinking wine and enjoying the company of the people you love. Saluti!

Erin’s Veggie Tomato Sauce

Ingredients

3 tbsp olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and grated

3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

1/2 to 1 tsp crushed red chile flakes

1 1/2 tsp dried oregano or Italian seasoning

1 can (796 mL) San Marzano tomatoes, or stewed tomatoes

1/2 cup water

1 tsp salt

Freshly cracked pepper, to taste

1 cup white beans, pureed in a food processor or blender

Directions

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large heavy-bottomed pot. Once oil is hot and shimmery, add onion and carrot and cook until beginning to brown, stirring occasionally. Once you’ve got some nice colour, add the garlic, chile, and spices and cook for 1 minute more. Then add the tomatoes, water, salt, and pepper and stir, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

Turn the heat down to low, and partially cover with a lid. Allow to simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring every 30 min or so, and crushing the tomatoes with the back of your spoon. The longer it cooks, the better it will be. Add a bit of water if the sauce is starting to stick to the bottom of the pan.

When sauce has cooked, remove from heat and add the white bean puree (you can also add the whole beans and puree the sauce all together). Using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor, blend the mixture until smooth. For a more rustic texture, you can also just mash everything with a big spoon or potato masher.

Skillet Gnocchi

Ingredients

1 package of pre-made gnocchi (I love frozen sweet potato gnocchi, but use whatever you like)

2 – 3 cups Veggie Tomato Sauce

1 cup ricotta cheese

Fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped

Directions

Preheat oven to 400⁰F. C

Coat the bottom of a cast iron, or other oven-proof skillet with a thin tomato sauce. Add the gnocchi in an even layer, then cover completely with tomato sauce. The gnocchi should be covered, but just peeking out of the sauce.

Place the skillet in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the gnocchi is cooked through and the sauce is bubbling (this may take a bit longer if the sauce is coming straight from the fridge).

When gnocchi is cooked, remove skillet from oven and top with dollops of ricotta. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 5 minutes more.

Garnish with basil, a drizzle of olive oil, and some parmesan cheese if you’d like.