This one’s a little different.
I grew up in northern New Jersey, the oft-maligned region of an oft-maligned state that has, more-or-less, New York City’s demographics. Centuries of immigration have pressed people from all over the world into this tiny piece of America, and with long shoulder-rubbing comes culinary interchange. When Puerto Ricans, Italians, and Polish people meet, magic happens, and some of that magic is spaghetti with kiełbasa, Alyssa style.
Spaghetti is Southern Italian, one of many pastas that became a fixture of American kitchens thanks to the disproportionate influence of southern Italy (and particularly Sicily and Naples) on the formation of Italian-American cuisine in the 19th and 20th centuries. Marinara sauce is an Italian-American idea, extrapolating the sauce of Neapolitan dishes such as “spaghetti alla marinara” into a stand-alone sauce that has since become a classic used with virtually every kind of Italian pasta, as a dipping sauce, and as a condiment. American versions of pasta with marinara sauce tend to be much saucier than their Italian counterparts, which I greatly appreciate.
Putting meat in pasta alla marinara isn’t a new concept. Meatballs and Bolognese sauce are long-established dishes, and chicken and seafood appear happily in other Italian and Italian-American delights. Using kiełbasa as that meat, however, is the kind of thing that could only come out of the US Mid-Atlantic.
Kiełbasa (pronounced, roughly, “kee-eh-oo-ba-sa,” unlike how everyone in your life says it) is, in the original Polish, simply “sausage,” and encompasses the enormous variety of Polish sausages, including the dry and spicy kabanos and the blood sausage kaszanska. In North America, the term has come to refer specifically to kiełbasa wiejska, or “farmhouse sausage,” a large-diameter U-shaped sausage with characteristic seasonings. Why this entry in Poland’s sausage catalog became what “Polish sausage” means to the average American is anyone’s guess, but it is now a fixture in groceries and delicatessens regardless of heritage, as American as apple pie and spaghetti alla marinara. It’s not any easier to find, work with, or afford than the Italian sausages used in more conventional pasta, but it’s the one my parents settled on, and it’s the one I remember.
Spaghetti with kiełbasa is deliberately simple. My mother makes it with jarred pasta sauce, as a low-effort, high-reward dinner for when more intense meals aren’t viable. It’s comfort food, improbable and easy, suffused with memories of lilacs and holly.
It feels poignant, now, that family has been on my mind.
This version is elevated a bit over how my mother makes it, with some additions to the process for an even tastier result.
You will need a stovetop or similar bottom-up heat source, your favorite cutting and chopping tools, a long wooden spoon for stirring, a large pot for the pasta, and a smaller pot or saucepan for the sauce. You will also need your preferred tool for removing pasta from its water when it is finished and a blender. For best results, use an oven and an oven tray for the kiełbasa, but a frying pan and stovetop are also usable.
- Spaghetti, 375 g
- Water for boiling
- Kiełbasa, one
- Tomato, 1 796mL can. Substitute a slightly higher volume of fresh tomato.
- Basil, fresh, 3-5 leaves. Substitute a slightly higher quantity of dried basil.
- Garlic, 1-2 cloves
- Oregano, 1 tablespoon
- Red pepper flakes, to taste
- Honey, to taste (usually 1-2 tablespoons). Substitute sugar.
- Tomato, four
- Romaine lettuce, eight leaves
The sauce instructions are deliberately simpler than many others, sufficient for a household like mine that rarely has prepared pasta sauce in it anymore to still put this together in a few minutes. The sauce can be replaced with any other marinara sauce recipe, including Greta Christina’s beacon of deliciousness here, or with a premade sauce.
It is important that the pasta not wait long after straining before introduction to the sauce, but boiling the water and roasting the kiełbasa both take time. The three components of this meal are treated separately here for clarity, but should all be done as simultaneously as possible.
This recipe serves four.
- Preheat your oven to 400°F / 204°C.
- Cut the kiełbasa into slices approximately one inch thick.
- Place kiełbasa slices on oven tray, flat side down, and place tray in oven for 10 minutes.
- Rearrange or flip kiełbasa slices and return to oven for 10 minutes. The kiełbasa slices should now be firmer and spicier than they were before roasting.
- Remove kiełbasa from oven and set aside.
- Blend the tomato until it is liquid with the desired level of chunkiness and pour it into your sauce pot. Put sauce on medium heat.
- Chop or press garlic and add it to sauce.
- Chop fresh basil and add basil to sauce.
- Add roasted kiełbasa to sauce.
- Add oregano, salt, honey, and red pepper flakes to sauce. Adjust seasonings to taste.
- Stir the sauce to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot as it heats.
- If desired, thicken sauce by increasing heat and stirring continuously to boil out water. The desired final sauce volume leaves two or three tablespoons of sauce behind when the pasta has been eaten.
- Heat at least 4 cups of water with at least 1 tablespoon of salt in your pasta pot.
- When the water boils, add the pasta according to manufacturer instructions.
- Drain pasta and add pasta to sauce.
Salad and Final Assembly
- Cut tomatoes into wedges.
- Cut or tear lettuce leaves into smaller pieces.
- Serve pasta into individual portions. Individual portions should have 4-8 slices of kiełbasa.
- Add salad to each portion. Garnish with a fresh basil leaf.
In my boundless fondness for sausage, I have sampled merguez, chorizo, Vienna, kabanose, salsiccia, frankfurter, bratwurst, breakfast sausage, and others I am probably forgetting. All of them are welcome experiences, but not even chorizo has the place in my heart that kiełbasa does, thanks to this dish. When I start to miss the lilacs and need something that pulls at deep nostalgia, and when I need a meal that comes together with less effort than tortilla de papa, this is where I go, and I look forward to it every time.