Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pasta Al Forno --Part 2: The Recipe

In his extraordinary book, Sicily Culinary Crossroads, legendary Sicilian  historian and food writer, Giuseppe Coria, states that a cohesive Sicilian gastronomy does not exist because of  variation among towns and regions, owing to a history of foreign domination, geography and climate. Pasta al forno is an example of this, with its many variations throughout the island. The recipe below is one taught to me by my beloved aunt, Zia Pia from Marsala, and it will delight your family and guests as it does mine. 

-1 medium red onion; 250 grams (or ½ lb) each of ground veal and pork; 4 T olive oil
-1 liter (about 5 cups) of pureed tomato;  200 gr (or ½ c) each of pine nuts and dried currants;
 450 gr (or 1 lb) shelled peas
-A small whole red chili pepper; salt; sugar and freshly grated nutmeg to taste; fresh basil
-500 gr (or 1 lb) fresh sheet pasta
-Caciocavallo cheese (about 10 thin slices); 250 gr (or 1/2 lb) grated pecorino cheese
-Butter for greasing the casserole dish and a few tablespoons of unseasoned breadcrumbs

The Ragu:
If you are making your own tomato puree, which I recommend you do,  begin by boiling about 5 lbs of ripe roma tomatoes and passing them though a food mill that captures the seeds and skins. Discard the seeds and skins and set the puree aside. Soak the currants in hot water to soften and set aside.
 Sauté a finely chopped onion in olive oil until translucent.  Add the ground beef and pork and continue browning over a medium flame. Add the tomato puree, pine nuts and currants. Season with salt, whole red chili pepper, a tablespoon of sugar to taste, a dusting of fresh nutmeg and a handful of fresh basil.  Cook the ragu for about an hour on a low flame, stirring it occasionally and allowing it to thicken. At the final cooking, remove the chili pepper and add the peas. Remove the sauce from the heat and set it aside.
Note: A tomato extract, called ‘strattu is used to thicken and flavor Sicilian red sauces. ‘Strattu is made by drying tomato pulp in the sun on wooden boards and is almost impossible to come by outside of Sicily, unless it is home made. Commercially bought tomato paste is not the same and will alter the flavor of your sauce, so I have omitted it here.  Using a simple tomato puree, your sauce will thicken as it reduces, and the flavor will capture the sweetness of fresh tomato.                                      
                                                   The Pasta
You will need about a pound of fresh sheet pasta, like the kind used for lasagne.  If making the pasta at home, make the sheets very thin. Most cities now have fresh pasta manufacturers. I divide my time between the two coasts, and when I'm in San Diego I go to Assenti Pasta http://kekova.ca/page/contact ; in Washington DC, Vace Pasta www.vaceitaliandeli.com.   Cook the pasta al dente in batches, in boiling salted water and transfer it to a container of ice water to stop the cooking. Next remove it from the ice water and lay the pasta flat on a clean dish cloth, making sure the edges don’t touch. 

You will need a casserole dish or cake pan with tall sides, approximately 8x3 inches, which can be found at  http://www.fatdaddios.com/.  Grease the pan with butter or olive oil and coat the sides and bottom with breadcrumbs.  Begin by placing the cooked pasta sheets in the pan making sure they completely cover the bottom. This first layer only must hang over the sides of the pan.

Add  a generous  ladleful of ragu on the first layer, followed by  a few slices of caciocavallo cheese, and a dusting of pecorino. Caciocavallo is now available in may import stores, but if it is not available, it is fine to just use pecorino.  (At this point the classic ingredients of pasta al forno-- sautéed eggplant, sliced hard boiled egg and salami or mortadella would be layered in--however this particular recipe does not call for them.) Continue layering the pasta, sauce and cheese until you reach the final strata. Finish the layering by taking the overhanging sheets of pasta and bring them gently upward toward the middle so that your casserole resembles a cake.  Place it in a hot oven.

Bake the pasta uncovered in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes. Allow it to brown on top and remove it when it is bubbling hot.  Cool the pasta for about 20  or 30 minutes.
Place a large flat dish on top of the pasta and carefully invert pan so that it is sitting face down on the dish. Gently tap the top to loosen the pasta and remove the pan, being careful to keep the pasta intact. 

Slice the pasta in wedges and serve it as a first course accompanied by hearty red wine.

Buon apetito and ciao a presto!

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