Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baked Pasta

Although spring’s arrival has treated us to some gorgeous sun-splashed days, there are still remnants of winter’s final raw and damp days making the occasional appearance.  These final gasps of chilliness call for serving up one of the most beloved comfort foods of all time: the baked pasta entrée.  There is no question that upon extraction from the oven, a pan of bubbling, golden brown pasta brings instant smiles to those gathering at the dinner table.  These are satisfying, feel-good dishes, usually a meal within one pan needing little more than a salad to accompany. 

By far one of the two most popular such entrees is the lasagna.  Lasagna noodles are wide, long sheets with ruffled edges.  They are typically boiled and then layered in a deep pan with other layers of cheeses and a sauce.  Traditionally, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses are used; however with today’s culinary creativity, other examples of cheese have been thrown into the lineup.  The sauce can be a tomato-based meat or vegetable sauce or a creamy white béchamel sauce.  Once the layering is complete and the prepared dish has been topped with a final layer of mozzarella cheese, it is then placed into the oven until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese blanket is molten and golden.  Brian made a fabulous shellfish lasagna, which made a stellar appearance on at least one Christmas Eve table.  I once made a recipe that I had found in a cooking magazine which called for walnut-herb pesto sauce as well as a béchamel, no tomato whatsoever.  It seems that no matter what the filling, the gooey melted cheese and the layers of goodness give any lasagna a comforting and satiating element.

The other highly acclaimed baked pasta dish is macaroni and cheese.  From the early childhood years, we all grew up craving the contents of that ubiquitous blue box that resulted in a plate of elbow pasta coated in a day-glow orange sauce of questionable ingredients.  That variation never even made it even to the oven, the instructions called for boiling the elbows, draining, stirring in the ‘sauce’ and then serving.  Once you experience homemade macaroni and cheese, you will take my advice quite readily and leave the boxed stuff at the store.  It is known that the best way to heighten a child’s interest in the kitchen is to involve him or her in the selection and process of preparing a dish.  This is absolutely true, particularly if the introductory lesson centers on every child’s favorite.  Next time your child begs for a macaroni and cheese dinner, your response should be ‘Okay, let’s make it together!’  First he or she has already chosen the dish to be served for dinner.  Next, take your child to the store to purchase the ingredients.  No, not the blue box!  The REAL ingredients.  Buy the pasta, a block of mild cheddar, the milk, the flour and the butter.  That’s really all that belongs in the most basic macaroni and cheese.  At home your child can watch and assist with age-appropriate tasks to transform these simple ingredients into that magical, highly coveted entrée.

Just as lasagna has evolved, so too has macaroni and cheese.  For more mature palates that appreciate stronger flavors, there is macaroni and cheese with truffles, bathed in a sauce of Comte and sharp cheddar cheeses.  Lobster macaroni and cheese is another favorite.  I once made a macaroni and cheese containing three kinds of cheese – Roquefort, Comte and sharp Cheddar – topped with an herbed breadcrumb mixture.  The same cooking magazine that introduced me to the pesto-bechamel lasagna opened another can of worms, or chicken: a recipe for Buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese, which contains chunks of boneless fried chicken, a sauce of cheddar, provolone and blue cheese, chopped scallions and plenty of hot sauce.  Brian loves this and requests it periodically; I’m sure I don’t make it quite as often as he would like.

Regardless of what ingredients you incorporate into a macaroni and cheese recipe, the concept is simple: boil macaroni (or any small short pasta, such as small shells or even penne), make the sauce, drain the pasta, combine the two components plus anything else you might like to add, such as cooked lobster or truffles, turn out into a baking dish, sprinkle with a topping if desired, such as breadcrumbs, and bake in the oven until the cheese sauce is bubbly and the top is golden brown.

The same guidelines apply to any baked pasta entrée.  The ingredients are each cooked, then combined, and then baked.  Even something as simple as baked ziti works the same way.  I recently made baked ziti into which I stirred tomato sauce, crumbled cooked Italian sausage and green peppers.  The top was smothered in mozzarella.  Another baked favorite of mine is stuffed shells.  Large pasta shells are cooked and then filled; then sauce is poured over them, a final sprinkle of cheese and then a date with the oven.  Traditionally these are filled with a ricotta cheese mixture.  I have taken that ricotta stuffing a step further by adding either cooked spinach or cooked small shrimp and bay scallops.

While there is still a chance of encountering a day of rainy, chilly April showers – and those of us who live in the northeast have certainly experienced the Easter snowstorm or two – take the opportunity to welcome the family to dinner with the enticing and heartwarming entrée of lasagna.  I’ll even share my latest version with you.  This dish is ideal for couples or small families of three; it is baked in a basic loaf pan.  If you have a larger family, simply double the recipe and make two loaf pans.

Lasagna with Sausage, Mushrooms and Smoked Mozzarella (serves 2-3)

½ bulk Italian sausage (sweet or hot, the choice is yours, I like to use a            combination of the two)
2 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, diced
½ cup chopped onion
3 coves garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped green pepper
4 ounces cremini (baby bella) mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
4 cups tomato sauce (see the previous blog post for recipe)
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 egg, beaten
½ package lasagna noodles
8 ounces smoked mozzarella, shredded
8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Boil the lasagna noodles in a large pot of salted water until al dente.  Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add the sausage, pancetta, onion and green pepper.  Cook and stir for about five minutes.  Add the mushrooms and continue to cook and stir until they are softened.  Add the garlic and sauté for another five minutes.  Add the tomato sauce, stir to combine, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat.  Drain the lasagna noodles and run them under cold water for a minute.  Leave the noodles to drain.  In a bowl, combine the ricotta, egg and parsley; mix well.  In another bowl, combine the smoked mozzarella and the fontina, mix well.

Spread a ladle full of the meat mixture onto the bottom of a loaf pan.  Cover the bottom with a single layer of 2-3 of the lasagna noodles.  Spread one half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles.  Spread one half of the remaining meat mixture over the ricotta layer.  Sprinkle one half of the shredded cheese combination over the meat sauce layer.  Repeat the layering process in the same order, starting with 2-3 lasagna noodles, followed by the remaining ricotta mixture, followed by the remaining meat sauce and finally ending with the remaining shredded cheese mixture on top.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese has begun to brown and the sauce is bubbly.  Remove from oven and allow to rest for ten minutes before cutting and serving.

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