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First you tackle shovels of snow, then go with forkfuls of pasta

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DURING THESE days when the wind is raw and the world is treating you like a soggy doormat, you deserve some comfort food.

That is what I have been telling myself lately to keep myself shoveling snow and chipping ice and generally going forward in the frigid, gray void known as this winter.

There was a time when the pleasure of a job well-done - a sidewalk cleared, a driveway freed - was enough motivation to send me shuffling out the door and into a snowbank.

That was several weeks ago, when snow was a novelty, the air felt bracing and the back muscles felt somewhat limber. Now such thoughts, like my muscles, are very tired.

These days only the promise of being compensated with a scrumptious dish can get me out the door, shovel and scraper in hand, to battle the elements yet again. This kind of food is a reward for doing nasty jobs and has to provide succor to the frozen digger. I am not talking about celery sticks dipped in yogurt. The dish has to be warm, rich and sensual - in short, the Sophia Loren of suppers.

One such dish is baked pasta with sausage and peppers. In the past month my family has made it about five times, each time filling up a giant oven-proof dish. The recipe feeds eight, but rarely were there leftovers. Everybody in the family of four, including the two college boys, had several platefuls. Usually I try to confine myself to one serving, but during the siege of snow, the rules change. I figure that if you shovel the sidewalk multiple times, you are entitled to multiple helpings.

This is not a dish for those counting calories. But it does deliver relief to those of us who burn up lots of carbs pushing frozen precipitation off slippery surfaces.

The dish came from Make It Italian by Nancy Verde Barr (Knopf, 2002, $29.95). This cookbook has become one of the favorites of my family, and as the weather gets worse, we are using it more and more.

One recent winter day, after it had stopped snowing in Baltimore, I talked on the phone to Barr, who was huddled in a Rhode Island kitchen, waiting for the snow to start falling there. She told me that the inspiration for the sausage-and-peppers dish, like many dishes in this cookbook and in an earlier work (We Called It Macaroni, Knopf, 1996), had come from her Italian grandmother, Nonna.

She also agreed that boys love it. Her two sons, Brad and Andrew, now in their mid-20s, were especially fond of the baked sausage-and-pepper dish, she said.

"It has a combination of flavors that work well," she said, and proceeded to describe some of the fine points of the dish.

She said she prefers to use some roasted red peppers, not solely green ones, because the red peppers "give the dish a sweetness that green peppers don't."She puts a small dose of paprika or a hot pepper in the mix because, she said, "It punches up the flavor of the tomatoes without making it hot."

And Barr, who has served as executive chef to Julia Child and studied under Italian cookbook guru Marcella Hazan, gave a brief outline of the correct way to cook pasta.

You should use generous amounts of water, four quarts of water of every pound of pasta, she said. Once the water has boiled, you add a generous amount of salt, two tablespoons for four quarts of water and l pound of pasta. The salt, she said, "seals in the flavor of the pasta."

Timing is crucial, she said. You don't cook the pasta until the sauce that goes on it is finished, or almost finished. If your pasta sits, waiting for a sauce, it overcooks and gets mushy. Or as she put it: "The sauce can wait for the pasta, but the pasta can not wait for the sauce."

So, as the winter turns meaner, I trudge outside knowing that when the dreary snow shoveling stops, the delicious shoveling of baked pasta with sausage and peppers will begin.

Pasta With Sausage and Peppers

Serves 8

4 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

1 pound Italian sweet sausage, casings removed

salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes or paprika or 1/2 small hot pepper

3 cups chopped canned tomatoes with their juices (divided use)

4 quarts water

1 pound short macaroni, such as ziti or rigatoni

1 cup white sauce (see below)

1/2 pound grated mozzarella

3 roasted red or green peppers, cut in strips

1/4 cup torn basil leaves (optional)

1 cup freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set the rack in the middle of the oven. Coat the bottom and sides of a shallow oven-proof dish with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Meanwhile heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12-inch saute pan. Break the sausage into pieces and drop them into the pan. Continue to break the sausage with a fork until the pieces are pea-size.

When the sausage has lost its pink color, season to taste with salt, add the hot pepper, and then pour in 2 1/2 cups of the tomatoes, saving the remaining 1/2 cup for the top of the dish. Cook until heated through, about 15 minutes to 20 minutes, when the sauce has slightly thickened.

Bring water to a boil in a large pot, add 2 tablespoons of salt, then cook macaroni until it reaches this point: When you bite a piece, your tooth easily penetrates the outside but meets some resistance at the center. The amount of resistance varies from eater to eater. Drain in a footed colander set in the sink.

Stir the tomato-sauce mixture and 1 cup of the white sauce into the cooked and drained pasta.

Scoop one-third of the pasta into prepared baking dish. Scatter half the mozzarella, half the peppers, half the basil leaves, if using, and one-third of the grated parmesan cheese on top.

Cover with another layer of pasta, the remaining mozzarella, peppers and basil, and another third of parmesan cheese. Cover with all the remaining pasta, and drizzle the reserved 1/2 cup of tomatoes on top. Sprinkle on the rest of the cheese, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the pasta is tender.

Per serving: 522 calories; 26 grams protein; 25 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 49 grams carbohydrate; 54 milligrams cholesterol; 622 milligrams sodium

- From "Make It Italian" by Nancy Verde Barr (Knopf, 2002, $29.95)

White Sauce

Makes 4 cups

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/3 cup flour

4 1/2 cups milk, heated

2 to 3 gratings nutmeg

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Take the pan off and sprinkle the flour on the melted butter. Whisk constantly until you have a smooth paste. Working off the heat will give you better control at preventing lumping.

Return the pan to heat and cook for 6 minutes under low heat, whisking often to cook away the raw-flour taste. Do not allow the paste to color.

Again remove the pan from the heat and pour in the heated milk, slowly in a steady stream, whisking well to create a smooth sauce. Return the pan to heat and bring the sauce to a boil. It will thicken quickly.

Stir in the nutmeg, salt and pepper and turn the heat to low. Cook gently for 30 minutes to blend flavors, stirring often and thoroughly to prevent sauce from sticking to the bottom.

The sauce will reduce slightly and thicken. The sauce may be used immediately, cooled and refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 3 months.

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