Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pasta al Forno

Pasta al forno is the ultimate in rustic comfort food. "Forno" means oven in Italian, so as the name would imply, this is a baked pasta dish. Lasagne is the more common baked pasta, put this variation is absolutely worth making, a definite crowd pleaser. Because it can be made ahead of time, this is the perfect thing to serve when company is coming. If there are any leftovers, they are even better the next day. You need to first make the ragu (meat sauce), then prepare the besciamella and cook the pasta. Then you will be ready to assemble this delight.


one batch of classic ragu bolognese (see recipe below)
one batch of basic bechamel (besciamella) sauce (see recipe below)
1 pound of dry rigatoni pasta (I prefer Barilla)
ground nutmeg
abundant grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese

First prepare the ragu:

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion finely chopped
1 carrot diced
1 celery stick chopped
1 clove garlic minced
4 strips bacon
1 1/2 pound ground beef (or mixture with ground veal or pork)
2/3 cup red wine
1/2 cup milk
grated nutmeg
14 oz. can crushed tomatoes in puree
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp fresh oregano, less if dried
salt to taste

If you have a chopper, for me this is the easiest way to get started. In your chopper, put the carrot, celery, onion, garlic, and bacon. Cut the ingredients into uniform size pieces before putting in chopper. Then pulse the chopper until everything is pretty finely chopped. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and when it is really hot, and the vegetable mixture. Saute over medium high heat until everything becomes nice and golden. Next add the ground meat, and stir occasionally until the meat is nicely browned. Add the red wine to the meat mixture. Bring to a boil, and stir regularly until most of the wine has been absorbed by the meat mixture. Add salt to taste. Now add the milk, and a little bit of nutmeg. Continue cooking until most of the milk been absorbed. Next add the chopped tomatoes, sugar and oregano. Stir all the ingredients together, then reduce the heat and let simmer for 1-2 hours if you can. The sauce should take on a brick red color. Sauce should be quite thick, but if is too thick, you can add a little bit of canned tomato sauce (puree) until you get your desired consistency. If the sauce will be used for lasagne, you need it to be thicker. Your sauce is ready!

Next bring a large pot of salted water boil, and cook the rigatoni until it is still quite firm, quite al dente. Be sure not to overcook the pasta, as it will continue to cook in the oven as it is baked with the ragu. Drain the pasta and set aside until your besciamella is ready, and you are going to assemble the dish.

For the besciamella (bechamel) sauce (makes 2 cups)
1/2 stick (4 tbsp butter)
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
1/4 tsp salt
dash of ground nutmeg

Melt the butter in a small heavy bottom sauce pan. Add the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon for about 3 minutes over medium heat. In another small sauce pan, heat the milk until almost boiling. Gradually add the milk to the butter/flour mixture, stirring constantly. A wire whisk is helpful to avoid lumps. Once all of the milk has been added, bring to a gentle boil, and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring almost constantly. Sauce should be somewhat thick. Season with salt pepper and nutmeg, stir well, then remove from heat.

Once the ragu is made, pasta drained al dente, and bescimella made, you can then assemble your pasta al forno.

I usually use a 9 by 13 inch baking dish for this pasta, but you can use whatever oven safe dish you prefer. First put about a 1/3 cup of besciamella sauce on the bottom of your baking dish. Then in a separate mixing bowl, toss the pasta with the ragu sauce and about a cup of besciamella. Combine well. Then put half of the pasta with sauce in the baking dish. Layer another 1/3 cup of besciamella on top of the pasta. Finish with the remaining pasta and layer the remaining besciamella. Sprinlke generously with grated parmigiano reggiano. Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Then the last 5 minutes, turn the oven to broil to achieve a nice brown crust on top. Watch carefully as it can burn easily. Let the pasta cool 5-10 minutes before serving. I am sure you will enjoy. Buon Appetito!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pollo ai peperoni

There's nothing better and more comforting after a hard and long day at work than to come back home to a nice meal. I really enjoy when you're about to enter the door and you can smell the aroma of whatever today's "chef" is surprising, leaving you pleasantly guessing. One of my favorite is the smell of a bakery, when they make bread or any pastry. It's very comforting and somewhat reassuring. One of my favorite meals that fits into this category is chicken with bell peppers. I like to simmer the chicken very slowly, first in oil and then add some white wine, just for the multiple-layered experience to have every room filled with different aromas. The outcome, of course is outstanding


6 to 8 chicken drumsticks
3 bell peppers, possibly different colors
1 onion
Extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 can of crushed tomatoes  ( 4 fresh tomatoes if you prefer)
half a cup of white wine

Using a large round pot, let the oil get warm before tossing the garlic carefully minced. Once the garlic gets a golden color, peel and slice the onion, toss it in the pot, and let it simmer for about five minutes at medium heat, without making it too brownish. Meanwhile cut the bell peppers, getting rid of all the small seeds, into half an inch large strips. Next, gently lay the chicken drumsticks and let them cook in the oil, making sure they get that crispy brown color given by the oil. Make sure you turn the drumsticks around every now and then to guarantee that color uniformly. Once the chicken looks nicely cooked pour the white wine on top and let it reduce for about three minutes. Now it's time to toss the peppers in the pot, mixing them with the chicken , making sure that the heat is not too high. Cover with a lid letting a little gap for the steam to get out for about eight minutes, stirring every now and then the peppers with the chicken. Finally, pour the tomato sauce on top and mix all the content of the pot with it. I like to leave the  lid on, because the steam falling back into the pot guarantees some moisture while cooking. Now you can put the heat a little higher, but make sure that you check that the sauce doesn't dry out too soon, adding a little bit of water now and then. The chicken will be ready when the sauce is a brick red color, and small tender pieces of the chicken begin to separate from the drumstick bones. Pair up with a nice Cabernet and Focaccia bread.