madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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classic white pasta bake with peas and ham

Baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

Pasta al forno (baked pasta) is to Italy what macaroni and cheese is to the rest of the world. In the good, homemade, festive way, not – heaven forbid – in the Kraft dinner way. I was amazed to discover that the recipe was originally  imported to the US by no less than President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He even had Parmesan and pasta imported from Italy as he was not satisfied with locally produced ingredients. Note: pasta and Parmesan, no Cheddar. Sadly the upper class appeal of pasta baked with cheese and butter disappeared already in the middle 1880s. My  guess is that it kept in a free fall until today’s microwavable abominations.

If you live in North America, you probably know all the above. As for myself, I can’t wrap my brain around the idea of a neon-orange dry cheese-flavored sauce in a prepackaged pasta mixture. The only idea gives me brain fog.

Hopefully you are here because you want to know how to make an authentic baked pasta, one that you will find in many Italian houses, particularly when in need to feed a crowd, from a summery garden-party to Christmas or other holidays.

  1. use good quality pasta, possibly bronze drawn and cook it in plenty salted boiling water for half of the time indicated on the package to avoid overcooking. For example, if the pasta package indicates 10 min, cook it for 5 min. If it’s gluten-free pasta you might need to cook it  one minute less than half time.
  2. instead of peas, use seasonal vegetables, saute with garlic, roasted or lightly steamed so they keep crunch and color.
  3. use only one or two types of vegetable in a recipe. This gives a more refined and decisive taste. If I combine two vegetables I tend to use them of approx. the same color, e.g. asparagus and zucchini, mushrooms and squash.
  4. Don’t overload it with condiments. You want to attain a balance of texture and flavor not a gloppy blob of fat. Less is more.

It’s a great recipe because you can change it with the seasons and you can prepare it in advance which is always a bonus when you have guests. It actually improves if you bake it until warmed through, cool off and refrigerate. Just finish it the next day before serving.

As you see from the recipe I use a modest amount of meat as a flavor enhancer. Pork can be substituted with stewed game or a slow cooked beef ragu with no tomato.  You can also easily make it vegetarian by using some smoked or blue cheese or a little black truffle.

Recipe

  • 500 gr (16 oz) short pasta like ziti, fusilli or penne
  • 2 and 1/2 cups Béchamel sauce made with 1/2 lt ( 2 cups) milk, 30 gr (2 tablespoon) corn starch and 30 gr (2 oz) butter.
  • 500 gr (16 oz) petite green peas
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 150 gr (5 oz) cooked ham, chopped finely
  • 200 gr (7 oz) mild cheese such as caciotta or mozzarella, sliced thinly
  • 100 gr (3 oz) grated Parmesan or Pecorino
  • white wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste

Over low heat and covered, saute onion in a large pan until slightly golden. Increase the heat, uncover and deglaze with a few tablespoon of white wine.

Add peas and 1/2 cup water and boil quickly until they are cooked through but still bright green. Remove from heat and add the chopped ham.

Make a fairly thin Béchamel using my quick microwave method, see here.

Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water until half of the cooking time. Drain and toss with half of the Béchamel, 2/3 of the grated cheese and all the peas and ham.

Line a ovenproof pan with oiled parchment paper. This pasta tends to stick even in non-stick pans. Make layers of the pasta mixture and the mild cheese ending with a layer of pasta, a layer of Béchamel and a generous sprinkle of grated cheese.

Bake at 200 °C ( 390 °F) until slightly golden on top.

Serves 6

A most festive dish, beloved by everyone

A most festive dish which will bring smiles all around the table


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sartù alla napoletana

the sartu rice timbale

the sartu, a spectacular rice timbale

The  Neapolitan SARTU’ is a sophisticated  timbale of rice filled with cheese, vegetables and meat.  The name Sartù originates from a silver table centerpiece or surtout, used by the Naples’ nobility to serve the most important dish of a formal dinner.

Rice, imported into Italy by the Spaniards in the XIV century, had been snobbed by the pasta-eater Neapolitans as tasteless and only good for curing stomach illness.

They took until the end of 1700 to be convinced otherwise. By then rice was all the rage in France, the Bourbons ruled Naples and French cooks ruled the kitchens of aristocratic  families. They made it complicated – as French style commands – as well as acceptable to the locals using popular ingredients such as tomato sauce and mozzarella.

Beyond its gallic construction however, Sartù is an encyclopedia of Italian cooking, if you make that you can practically make everything else.

The traditional recipe involves the use of lard, aged pecorino cheese and a thick meat ragout with chicken livers. I prefer a light tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. It’s rich enough like this and feeds a small army. Remember,  it’s so delicious that if you make it once for your family, they will ask it over and over again.

If you really like to “strengthen” the sauce, cook the sausages in it, rather than grilling them.

Recipe

For the rice “shell”:

  • 1 recipe tomato sauce with basil
  • 450 gr. (1 pound) vialone nano, arborio or carnaroli rice
  • 4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg

For the filling:

  • 1 recipe polpettine (mini meatballs):
  • 1 recipe  piselli al prosciutto (peas with ham)
  • 1 recipe funghi trifolati (sauteed mushrooms)
  • 1 and 1/2 cup Béchamel sauce
  • 200  gr. (7 ounces) fresh mozzarella,  diced
  • 100 gr. (3 ounces) fresh pork sausage, fried (or grilled) and sliced

Prepare shell and filling:

Make a basic tomato sauce. Cook rice in plenty boiling hot water or stock for half of its cooking time, strain. Add egg, Parmesan cheese, tomato sauce, season with salt and pepper. If possible prepare the rice and sauce mixture one day in advance, it’s much easier to handle if it is cold.

Prepare meatballs, peas with ham, sauteed mushroom and Béchamel  sauce.

Assemble Sartu’
Preheat oven at 200°C (40o°F).
Butter generously a round 30 cm (11 inch)  ovenproof dish and dust it with breadcrumbs. Line the dish with a 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick layer of rice. You need to make sure that the rice layer is compact enough on the sides so that it will hold the filling.

Layer all other ingredients in the rice “shell” starting with the mini-meatballs and sausages and ending with the white sauce. Cover with the rest of the rice. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, a couple of tablespoon Parmesan and dot with a butter. Bake for 20-30 min until slightly golden. Allow to rest for at least 10 min before serving.

Serves 8


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piselli al prosciutto

peas and ham, a classic Italian side dish

peas and ham, a classic Italian side dish

PEAS AND HAM.  Spring brings wonderful ingredients, fresh peas, asparagus, broad beans, strawberries. It seems hardly necessary to cook as everything is so bright and flavorful you can eat it as it is. Fresh shelled peas are delicious and can be used as a low calories snack. This is a very traditional side dish that can be transformed into a pasta sauce by adding two tablespoon each of cream and Parmesan  and a squirt of lemon juice.

Recipe

  • 1  onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 and 1/2 cup frozen or shelled fresh peas
  • 2 tablespoon water
  • 4 ounces (120 gr) cooked ham, cut into thin strips
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion in EVO oil until translucent and slightly caramelized, add ham and cook briefly. Add peas and 1-2 tablespoon water and cook until peas are tender but still bright green. In her new cookbook , my  friend Judy Witts adds a pinch of sugar to the peas. This is a particularly good idea if the peas are frozen or just a bit starchy.  Season and serve warm or at room temperature

Serves 2-3

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