Cheesy Pasta: Move Over Mac!

Americans really do love macaroni and cheese – the dish is ubiquitous in magazines, websites, food blogs. What is there not to love when a pasta is cheesy and baked to perfection with a little crust on top!? With that in mind, I thought I might suggest an alternative to the usual mac and cheese, one that came to me from my brother-in-law Carlo who has made the dish on several occasions and I swooned every time. This is a perfect dish to make for family or other group gatherings as you can make it ahead of time and it presents itself elegantly as well as being oh-so-delicious! Try this baked rigatoni with leeks and Gruyère sauce the next time you are looking for a dish that will please the cheese and pasta lovers in your family.

Carlo’s Pasta al Forno con Salsa Gruviera e Porri

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 lb. package  rigatoni (or 453 gr.) or other short pasta

3-4 leeks (at least 4 cups sliced thinly)

4 oz.  (150 gr.) diced pancetta

4 oz. butter (one stick) or about 90 gr.

¼ cup olive oil

2 ½ cups milk (600 ml.)

2 cups grated Gruyère  (swiss cheese)

½  cup whipping cream (100 ml)

2 tablespoons flour

2 generous tablespoons grated parmigiano

A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

A pinch of freshly grated black pepper and salt

Equipment

1  9×13 inch pyrex  or other oven-proof dish (3 qt  or 2.8 l)

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the baking dish and set aside.

2. Cut the bottom and top ends of the leeks, then wash them making sure no dirt is left between the leaves. Cut them lengthwise and give them another good rinse. Slice thinly. In a sauteé pan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons butter and a little olive oil. Add the leeks and cook until softened. Season with salt.

3. In another small pan, cook the pancetta in a little olive oil until golden. Either drain or leave the pancetta to cool in the pan if it is not too fatty.

4. Make a white sauce by melting 2 tablespoons butter in a sauce pan, add 2 tablespoons flour and cook for two minutes.  Heat the milk (in a glass container in the microwave), then whisk  it into the flour and butter mixture, stirring constantly. Once the milk starts to boil gently, turn off the heat, add the whipping cream, the gruyere, and a dash of nutmeg. Stir and set aside.

5. In the meantime, heat the water for the rigatoni and once the water is boiling, salt it, and add the pasta. Cook it until barely al dente, then drain. In a large bowl put the pasta, add the leek mixture, the pancetta, and the cheesy white sauce. Stir until blended, then put it in the baking dish. Sprinkle the grated parmigiano (you may want to put more than 2 tablespoons!) and a light dusting of freshly grated black pepper.

6. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

Carlo mentioned to me that other ingredients can be added to this dish – or you can simply add more leeks or pancetta to suit your taste. I think it’s pretty perfect the way it is! You can make a vegetarian friendly version by omitting the pancetta and adding other vegetables. The leeks reign in this dish rendering it so rich tasting and satisfying, its full flavor on display. Thank you, Carlo, for your great dish I’m sure many will enjoy and make it part of their family tradition!

Crepes “Cannelloni”

Ever thought about making cannelloni with crepes? And fill them with the zucchini or other vegetables that abound at this time? I have tinkered with different crepe recipes, some contain more egg and less flour, others use more flour to achieve a pancake-like texture. I have something in between that works well with the following recipes.

But first, the crepe recipe!

Crepe Batter (pastella per crepes)

Makes 12  (more or less!) crepes

Ingredients

1 cup flour (approximately)

2 eggs

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter

vegetable oil or butter for brushing on the pan

salt to taste

1. Place ¾ Cup flour in the bowl, add 3-4 tablespoons milk to wet the dough. Mix well and add the eggs one at a time, alternating with more milk. Watch the consistency of the batter, if you prefer it thinner – add more milk or thicker – add a little more flour. Melt the butter and add it to the batter, then the salt. Let it sit 30 minutes to an hour. This important step allows the flour to take action with the rest of the ingredients. The batter will thicken and form little bubbles  on top.

2. To make the crepes, use an 8 inch nonstick pan. Heat it until fairly warm and grease it by brushing vegetable lightly all over the surface. Ladle 2-3 tablespoons of batter in the center of the pan and start rotating the batter quickly around the entire bottom. Once the batter begins to brown slightly around the edges, with a spatula, gently flip the crepe. Give it a few seconds, then overturn the crepe onto a paper towel. Usually the first one turns out a mess, so don’t panic! The pan needs to adjust to the right amount of heat and oil. As you get going, making more crepes and getting into a rhythm, the process gets easier.

Here’s a not so perfect demonstration on how to make the crepes!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtsvRs5aGT8

If you notice, I greased the pan with butter, but a better way is to brush a little vegetable oil on the pan. Another better technique is to pour 2-3 tablespoons of batter in the center of the pan and then rotate it.

3. I make four crepes, then layer with a paper towel, make another four, and so on. At this point you can either freeze them or store them in a plastic bag or covered pyrex dish until ready to use.

The following recipe adapted from the Italian magazine Sale e Pepe turned out delicious and provides an easy way to use the zucchini you have in the garden.

I used yellow and green zucchini in the creamy filling for these crepes.
I used yellow and green zucchini in the creamy filling for these crepes.

Crepes “Cannelloni” with Zucchini and Leeks

Ingredients

8 crepes

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon flour

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1-2 zucchini (depending on size), sliced in thin disks

1 leek, sliced thinly

1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano, grated

3 thinly sliced prosciutto (optional)

salt and pepper

Method

1. Make the crepes and set aside.

2. The “besciamella” or white sauce. In a small saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter, add the flour and make a roux. Slowly add the milk and stir until smooth.  Cook the sauce for about five minutes stirring constantly as it bubbles softly.  Add salt to taste. Cool.

3. The filling. In a sauté’ pan, heat the rest of the butter and the olive oil. Add the leeks and cook briefly until slightly translucent. Add  the zucchini and cook for 7-8 minutes until tender. Add the besciamella, 3-4 tablespoons of parmigiano, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

4. Lay the crepes out on a board or counter top and distribute the filling evenly among them. Roll the crepes and place them seam side up in the buttered dish. Drizzle more melted butter over the crepes. Sprinkle with rest of the grated parmigiano.  (Optional)Sprinkle thinly sliced prosciutto for some extra flavor.

5. Bake in a  preheated 400 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.

“Cannelloni” Crepes with Spinach and Ricotta

Another recipe that works very well with crepes is to make a filling using spinach and ricotta. These “cannelloni” are delicious as a a “primo” (first course),  a main or side dish. And it is delicious for lunch the next day!

 

View of the crepes before adding the parmiggiano and baking.
View of the crepes before adding the parmiggiano and baking.

 

Ingredients 

1 lb. chopped frozen spinach

1/2 chopped onion

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 oz. ricotta (low fat is ok)

3/4 cup parmigiano reggiano

Method

1. Make the crepes and set aside.

2. For the filling, begin by dunking  the frozen spinach in salted boiling water, just enough to defrost it. Drain and cool. When cool enough to handle, grab a handful of the spinach and squeeze the water until a ball is formed in your hand. In a saucepan, saute’ the onion inthe butter and olive oil until slightly golden. Add the spinach and cook it briefly until the flavors blend. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cool.

3. In a bowl break up the ricotta with a spoon, add the spinach and more seasoning as needed. You may like to add a little nutmeg. I like to add a scant 1/2 teaspoon onion powder. Let the mixture to  sit a bit before filling the crepes.

4. Fill the crepes and place in a buttered pyrex dish seam down.

5. Optional: make a quick tomato sauce by dicing 3-4 tomatoes and sauteing them at high heat for five minutes in a saucepan with 1/2 cup chopped onion, 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add a little water  during the cooking process if the sauce gets too dry. Spoon the tomato sauce over the crepes, sprinkle with parmigiano and bake for 25-30 minutes in a 350 degree oven or until heated through and slightly browned on top.

Buon appetito!