COMFORT FOOD Pasta and sauce and cheese: what a loving combination

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's getting cold. The economy is still kaput. The world is a baffling and often dangerous place. Some comfort is definitely called for.

And what could be more comforting than pasta casserole?

Most of us have an old favorite, a dish recollected from calmer times or one that sustained us in difficult times: Mom's macaroni and cheese, the tuna-noodle casserole that stretched the budget for a struggling young couple. . . . It's the perfect equation: Pasta plus love equals comfort.

Carmella Sartori knows all about that. She brought up eight children -- "and I never had a bit of trouble with them" -- on food from the Italian tradition she was raised in. She remembers some hard times, the Great Depression, but mostly she remembers the good times: All the family meals, the dishes she cooked for her children.

"In our days," she said in a recent interview in the Parkville house she and her husband built some 40 years ago, "you had to learn a lot of different ways to cook." She learned to make tomato sauce -- or "gravy," as it is traditionally called -- from her mother, who was born in Bordeaux, France. "Oh, she was a gourmet cook!"

Now, at 85, Mrs. Sartori is still cooking. The minute you walk in the door, you can smell the rich aroma of the sauce, bubbling in a pan on the stove with meatballs. Mrs. Sartori is standing by the stove with a big baking dish, spooning on the layers for her baked rigatoni.

She taps a few tablespoons full of ricotta cheese mixed with parsley, pepper and two eggs, and spreads them with the spoon. "So you make it a little bit rich," she says, with a laugh, "You don't eat it every day."

On top of the ricotta mixture she spoons a little more sauce, then she sprinkles it with mozzarella. Then more rigatoni, more sauce, more ricotta, more cheese -- she alternates layers of shredded mozzarella and grated Parmesan -- and tops it with the last of the pasta.

She pops it in the oven -- "I put it to 400 degrees to give it a start" -- where it will bake for about 30-35 minutes. "You look at it in half an hour," she says. It should come to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. "The best way to eat it is not right out of the oven," she says. "You let it sit a few minutes." That allows the flavors to "all get together."

While the pasta bakes, she reminisces about all the food she has cooked, all the things her children loved -- sauteed squash with peppers and scrambled eggs, tomato sauce with peas and eggs (the eggs cook right in the sauce) or sauce with string beans, greens sauteed in olive oil and garlic, thin pasta with tomato clam sauce, and spaghetti sauce with crab meat.

Italian cuisine is rich in comfortable food and most of the pasta dishes Americans are familiar with grew out of that tradition.

While it isn't true that 13th century explorer Marco Polo discovered pasta in China and took it back to Italy -- it seems the Etruscans were serving a version of lasagna in 4 B.C. -- it is true that Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World initiated a culinary exchange that ultimately introduced wheat-based pasta to tomato-based sauce. With Columbus Day approaching, there's no better time for all of us to celebrate this Old-New tradition.

Of course, most of us need little excuse. Pasta's ease of preparation -- a simple matter of boiling water and watching a clock -- and its intriguing variety -- about 150 shapes commercially available in the United States -- are two attributes that keep it on the perennial favorites list.

And Americans are taking more comfort in pasta than ever before. Per capita consumption of American-made pasta products was 18.4 pounds in 1990. That's a gain of almost 1 pound over 1989 (17.7) and of 5 pounds from a decade ago (12.9). Joseph M. Lichtenberg, president of the National Pasta Association, predicts that consumption will rise to 24 pounds per capita by 1995 and to more than 30 pounds by the year 2000, as more people discover its low cost, high nutritional benefits and versatility.

An average serving of pasta, or about 2 ounces, contains 7 grams of protein, 41 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of fat, and (this is for the pasta only) has about 210 calories.

In Mrs. Sartori's kitchen, the aroma of baking pasta fills the room. She checks the oven, and decides the casserole is done. She takes it out. It is red and golden and slightly puffed up. The ricotta has risen to the top; the fragrance is sublime.

She spoons out a plateful for her visitor, who pronounces it delicious.

Mrs. Sartori smiles. "If I were young, I'd do it all over again."

Here is Mrs. Sartori's recipe for baked rigatoni. You could use any large round shape -- ziti or mostaccioli would work as well. You could also make a lower-calorie, lower-cholesterol version by leaving out the eggs and using cottage cheese. But then it wouldn't be Mrs. Sartori's heavenly dish. The recipe for her "gravy" is from "The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook" by Baltimore native John Shields (Addison Wesley, 1990, $18.95).

Baked rigatoni Serves six to eight.

1 pound rigatoni

FOR THE SAUCE:

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 large onion, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon hot-pepper flakes

1 can (12 ounces) tomato paste

3 cups water

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) Italian plum tomatoes

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon sugar

FOR THE FILLING:

1 pound ricotta cheese

1 tablespoon parsley

2 eggs, lightly beaten

pepper to taste

1/2 - 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/2 - 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

To make the sauce: Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a pot, heat oil and saute garlic, onions and hot-pepper flakes until golden.

Stir in tomato paste. Rinse can with the water and add to pot. Simmer 30 minutes.

Add all the remaining ingredients. Simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours. If you have more time, let it simmer even longer.

To make the filling: Combine ricotta, pepper, parsley and eggs in medium bowl. Mix thoroughly. Reserve cheeses.

To assemble the casserole: Cook rigatoni according to package directions, but reduce cooking time by two minutes. Do not overcook.

Spread sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish. Top with a layer of pasta. Top pasta with a little more sauce, then several spoons full of ricotta mixture. Smooth together with the back of a large spoon. Top with a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese. Top that with a layer of pasta and repeat process, ending with Parmesan. Then repeat, ending with mozzarella etc. Finish with a layer of pasta.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or for about 15 minutes after it begins to bubble around edges. Ricotta will rise to top; it should be slightly set. Allow to stand 10-15 minutes before serving.

The next recipe is from Lora Brody, a chef, cookbook author and mom, whose latest cookbook, "The Kitchen Survival Guide," (Morrow, 1992, $20) is a treasury of cooking information and old-fashioned good food. In the introduction to this casserole recipe, she says:

"There are probably thousands of versions of this recipe and after you make it once or twice, you'll find yourself substituting or adding your own favorite ingredients. This is a loosey-goosey affair, so don't be shy about experimenting -- after you make it once my way."

Tuna noodle casserole Serves eight.

8 ounces egg noodles

1 10-ounce package frozen peas

1 8-ounce can cream of mushroom soup

1 cup milk

1 12 1/2 -ounce can tuna, drained

1-2 cups plain or seasoned bread crumbs tossed with 3 tablespoons melted butter, or 1-2 cups crushed crackers tossed with 3 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

Heat the oven to 375 degrees with the rack in the center position. Grease or spray nonstick vegetable cooking spray on 1 medium to large ovenproof baking dish, or two smaller dishes.

Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package, but shorten the cooking time by 2 minutes. Drain the noodles and combine with the peas, soup and milk. Mash the tuna with a fork to break it up and add it to the noodles. Mix gently and spoon into prepared pan. Sprinkle the crumbs over the top and bake for 35 minutes, until hot.

Variations: Add salt (taste first, as soup may be salty enough); freshly grated black pepper; white pepper; snipped fresh herbs, such as tarragon, or dried herbs. Also, if you're not an avid fan of bread crumbs, 2 cups may be too much. Toss 1/2 - 3/4 cup with 1 tablespoon melted butter or margarine for a light sprinkling.

The next recipe, much more in a "modern" vein, has enough eggs, milk and pasta to be a real comfort. It's from "Come On In," an award-winning cookbook from the Junior League of Jackson, Miss.

Herbed shrimp and feta casserole Serves 12.

2 large eggs

1 cup evaporated milk

1 cup plain yogurt

3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1/3 pound Swiss cheese, shredded

1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon dried basil

t teaspoon dried oregano

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound angel-hair pasta, cooked

1 jar (16 ounces) mild, chunky salsa

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, uncooked

1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded

Heat over to 350 degrees. Coat bottom and sides of an 8-by-12-inch baking dish with cooking spray. In separate bowl, blend eggs, milk, yogurt, feta and Swiss cheeses, parsley, basil, oregano and garlic. Spread half the pasta over bottom of baking dish. Cover with salsa. Add half the shrimp. Spread remaining pasta over shrimp. Pour and spread egg mixture over pasta. Add remaining shrimp and top with mozzarella cheese. Bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 20 minutes before serving.

(The book is available at some bookstores, or order it from the Junior League of Jackson for $21.95 plus $2.75 shipping and handling [check, money order, Mastercard or Visa] at P.O. Box 4709, Jackson, Miss. 39296-2357.)

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