When it comes to pasta dishes, it’s hard to top old-fashioned macaroni and cheese. Rich and substantial, flavorful but not sharp, the dish is a favorite among children, who keep their appetite for this homey casserole into their adulthood. In the US, even elegant restaurants might feature macaroni and cheese as a side dish.
For me macaroni and cheese was always a supper main course. My mother made it the traditional way. She cooked the macaroni in a big pot of boiling water, stood at the stove stirring and cooking the white sauce in another pan and baked the mixture with American cheese in a casserole in the oven.
Italians also make casseroles that resemble the macaroni and cheese of my childhood. Paolo Petroni, author of Il Libro della Vera Cucina Emiliana
, the book of the true cuisine of the region of Emilia in northern Italy, calls his version maccheroni alla balsamella, or macaroni with bechamel (white sauce), and bakes the mixture with just a sprinkling of Parmesan and bread crumbs. The Italian name of the dish reflects its subtle difference from the American casserole – the Italian one is more creamy than cheesy and is lighter in texture. In contrast, American cooks often pride themselves on the large proportion of cheese in their macaroni and cheese.
There are easier ways to enjoy a satisfying summertime supper of pasta and cheese. Over the centuries cooks throughout Italy have come up with many solutions to the question of how to have delicious pasta and cheese without heating up the kitchen.
Petroni’s green macaroni with mushrooms is as rich as macaroni and cheese but much easier, as it needs no white sauce and no baking. He sautees a chopped onion and mushrooms in oil and butter, then adds a little broth and cream, and tosses the sauce with the pasta and with grated Parmesan. Equally quick is his dish of Modena-style noodles, with a sauce of sauteed canned tomatoes heated with cooked peas, roasted sweet peppers, cream and Parmesan.
Cooks in southern Italy are masters at creating fast formulas for pasta
with cheese. It’s hard to find a pasta dish simpler than the linguine
alla campagnola prepared by Anna and Piero Serra, authors of
La Cucina della Campania
, a book on the cooking of
the region of Naples. All you need to make it is a pot to cook the
pasta and a serving bowl. To the hot cooked pasta, you add chopped
canned tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, Parmesan, salt
and pepper. It’s tasty and ready in minutes.
THE COOKS OF NAPLES also like pasta with battuto, a saute of diced
onion, carrot and celery that resembles French mirepoix. They moisten
the vegetables with a little water, and after a few minutes of cooking,
toss the mixture with pasta, fresh basil and grated cheese – the Serras
recommend caciocavallo, which resembles kashkaval.
From the lovely town of Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast comes fusilli alla
sorrentina, a dish of spiral pasta mixed only with butter and cheese –
in this case grated Parmesan and diced mozzarella. It’s baked briefly
with a topping of more Parmesan and butter. There’s no sauce; the
generous amount of mozzarella makes the pasta very creamy.
The following pasta and cheese dishes are savory and satisfying, yet
are fast, simple and perfect for the hot season. The first is rich,
creamy and flavored with goat cheese; the second combines feta cheese
with the beloved Mediterranean flavors of extra virgin olive oil, fresh
uncooked tomatoes and garlic.SPINACH PASTA WITH GOAT CHEESE, TOMATOES AND THYME
Pasta with goat cheese is a popular pair in modern cuisine on both sides of the Atlantic. Goat cheese flavors this dish in two ways: in a creamy, fast-cooked sauce that is tossed with the pasta tubes and, for an additional accent, scattered in small chunks over the top.
100 gr. to 120 gr. creamy goat cheese
(about 3⁄4 cup)
1 Tbsp. butter
1 large shallot or white part of 2 green
1 cup whipping cream
1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme leaves or
1 tsp. dried
225 gr. spinach pasta, such as penne,
fusilli or medium shells (3 to 31⁄2 cups),
or plain elbow macaroni
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt to taste
2 Tbsp. minced green part of green
225 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded,
3 Tbsp. minced parsley
If goat cheese has a dark rind, cut it off. Crumble or dice enough cheese to obtain 1⁄4 cup and set aside for garnish. Crumble or dice remaining cheese.
Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring often, about 3 minutes or until soft. Add cream and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Stir larger amount goat cheese into cream. Add thyme. Heat over medium heat, stirring, until smooth.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add salt, then pasta. Cook uncovered over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes for penne or 5 to 8 minutes for other shapes, or until tender but firm to the bite. While pasta is cooking, reheat sauce over medium heat to a simmer, stirring. Season to taste with cayenne and with salt, if desired. Remove from heat and stir in green onions.
Drain pasta well. Transfer to a heated serving dish and toss it with sauce. Add 3⁄4 of tomatoes, 2 tablespoons parsley and salt and cayenne pepper to taste and toss. Sprinkle with parsley, then with tomato, last with crumbled or diced cheese and serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 6 first-course or 3 main-course servings.NOODLES WITH FETA CHEESE, UNCOOKED TOMATO SAUCE AND GREEN BEANS
Whole-wheat pasta is perfect with the zesty combination of feta cheese and the garlic flavored tomato sauce. If you like, you can use 1⁄2 cup grated kashkaval or 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese instead of the feta.
450 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled,
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh hot pepper, seeded, ribs
removed, minced, or cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
3 Tbsp. minced green onion
3 Tbsp. minced fresh oregano or 2 to
3 tsp. dried
4 to 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
225 gr. green beans, broken in 2 or 3
225 gr. medium-wide noodles,
preferably whole wheat
100 gr. to 120 gr. feta cheese, crumbled
To make the uncooked tomato sauce: Combine the tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper, salt, green onion, oregano and 2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil in a bowl and stir. Let stand about 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 4 hours in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before using.
Cook green beans in a large saucepan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat for 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove with a slotted spoon.
Add pasta to the boiling water. Cook uncovered over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet, add beans and keep warm over very low heat.
Drain pasta well and transfer to a large heated serving bowl. Toss with remaining oil, if desired, and with the tomato sauce. Reserve 2 to 3 tablespoons feta cheese for garnish. Add beans and all but 2 or 3 tablespoons of the cheese and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Top with remaining cheese. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 3 to 4 servings as a light main course.Faye Levy is the author of