Amazing Race/Amazing Dinner

I enjoy a civilized dinner party with carefully set table, candles, smoothly orchestrated courses, and clean forks for dessert as much as the next person.  But those more subdued pleasures in no way detract from the satisfaction to be found in a more free-form feast, with a constant stream of buzzes from the front door intercom, shrieks and hugs, piles of shoes kicked off in the entryway, an uncertain headcount for the night, surprise contributions of wine, and dinner eaten cheerfully from sweatpant- clad laps around the TV.

Sunday night marked the beginning of the new season of The Amazing Race, and thus the resumption of my boyfriend Michael’s hostly duties.  For years, a group of reality TV aficionados has made their picks, ponied up their cash, and gathered at Michael’s place for a biweekly dinner and viewing party, heavy on the catcalls and trash-talk.

Michael gave serious consideration to the menu for the premiere, and decided on penne in two incarnations, with salad, garlic bread, and freshly baked cookies for dessert.

He started his traditional meat sauce mid-afternoon, and it simmered peacefully away on the stove while we attended to the serious business of a Sunday afternoon–lounging, that is.  At zero hour minus 30, the kitchen already filled with the rich scent of meat sauce goodness, I started the second dish–Penne with Spicy Sausage and Broccolini.

I was still finishing up my culinary efforts (and Michael was updating his spreadsheet for the betting pool) when people started to arrive.  Rob was first and promptly enlisted as sous-chef in charge of parmesan grating.  As I wielded the garlic press and threw red pepper flakes with reckless abandon, the place filled up with nine or ten members of the crew, Niki and Lacey bearing freshly made bread and bottles of booze, everyone jockeying for position with glasses and bottle opener, loudly catching up with each other, and just generally being festive.

It is a satisfying feeling to engage in a successful collaborative cooking effort, then serve the results to such an appreciative group.  In very short order, plates were loaded and the raucous conversation had moved to the living room.

Michael made a mad dash into the kitchen with his iphone, and was able to get some photos before the pots were completely scraped clean.  It was too late for the salad with four kinds of tomatoes, fresh-picked outside my backdoor hours before.

penne with meat sauce

Then we settled down to some serious eating, and not-so-serious TV watching.  We sized up this season’s contestants, came up with ridiculous nicknames for the teams, cheered, booed, and shouted at the TV.  Warm cookies were eaten, and a good time was had.

By the time I was finally home and snuggled in bed with my hot water bottle and cat, it was after eleven o’clock, long past my bedtime.  When I started my work day at 6:30 am on Monday, I’ll admit to a moment of regret for having lived la vida loca the night before, but as Michael is fond of saying: I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

Penne with Sausage and Broccolini

Penne with sausage and broccolini

(Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada DeLaurentis)

I have made many variations on this same basic dish, which goes together quickly, and is so salty/spicy/chewy/ satisfying.  This can also be made vegetarian by using a meat-substitute sausage, for those so-inclined.


  • 1 bunch broccolini, stems trimmed, and cut in one-inch pieces
  • 1 pound penne or other small pasta
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound spicy Italian sausage, cut in rounds
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan


Cook the broccolini in a large pot of boiling salted water until crisp tender, about 1 minute.  Remove the broccolini, saving the cooking water. Bring the reserved cooking water back to a boil.

Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook, until browned and juices form, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, onions, and red pepper flakes, and saute until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, when the reserved cooking water is boiling, add the penne and cook until al dente, tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about11 minutes.

Strain the penne, reserving one cup of the cooking water.

Return the broccolini to the pan with the sausage mixture and toss to coat with the juices. Add the pasta to the skillet, with enough of the reserved cooking water to moisten.  Stir in the Parmesan and serve immediately.

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