Party pasta

As the weather cools down, kitchens steam up with the flavors and aromas of deep and delectable pasta casseroles

Pasta dish (photo credit: MCT)
Pasta dish
(photo credit: MCT)
A steaming casserole of savory pasta is one of the most popular winter party dishes. From creamy American macaroni and cheese to old-fashioned kugels like my mother’s, with fried onions and cottage cheese, to meaty Greek pastitsio, these dishes are ideal for entertaining. These kinds of pasta dishes can be made in advance and are easy to serve. You simply cut them into squares or wedges or spoon the portions onto plates.
In the land of pasta, with so much experience using fettuccine, vermicelli and tortellini, it’s not surprising that Italian cooks developed elegant renditions of pasta casseroles.
Perhaps the most celebrated is the pasticcio, sometimes called a timballo, a layered casserole made with meat, fish or vegetables. Classic versions are baked as a pie between two layers of buttery pastry.
Paolo Petroni, author of Il libro della vera cucina emiliana (the book of authentic cooking of Emilia), made a macaroni and squab pasticcio. The cooked pasta is mixed with squab braised with dried mushrooms and Madeira, layered with bechamel sauce and truffles, and then baked in pastry. His cappelletti pasticcio is even more elaborate, making use of handstuffed pasta instead of macaroni, and mixing it with mushrooms and chicken livers cooked with wine. He noted that these old Italian dishes date back to the Renaissance, when the original recipes had a sweet pastry, and that an even older version of a meat pasticcio called for using a sweet rum sauce instead of bechamel.
More than two dozen pasticcios are featured in Vincenzo Buonassisi’s The Classic Book of Pasta. His veal, mushroom and noodle pasticcio has meat browned with mushrooms and onions, mixed with noodles and baked with Parmesan cheese and butter. A variation calls for a separate layer of butter-sauteed mushrooms and hardboiled eggs.
He even has a fish ball and vermicelli pasticcio. The fish balls, flavored with capers, black olives and pine nuts, are fried until brown, then layered with pasta and mushroom sauce, topped with breadcrumbs and bits of butter, and browned in the oven. I think my mother might have liked this different kind of gefilte fish.
Buonassisi presents his baked bucatini with scamorza cheese (which is similar to mozzarella) as a recipe for using veal leftovers. I have made a meatless version of the recipe and it was delicious. To make it, you mix cooked pasta with tomato and green olive sauce, then sprinkle it with oregano, cheese and butter and brown it in the oven.
I like his eggplant and macaroni casserole, for which he layers the eggplant with pasta in buttery tomato sauce and sliced mozzarella. He has a more exotic version made of macaroni cooked first in water and then in milk, and layered with a mixture of chopped fried eggplant, mushrooms, truffles and walnuts. Parmesan and butter provide enrichment. The components are baked in a sweet pastry crust.
In her new book Party Vegan, Robin Robertson uses Italian flavors to create a healthful, meat- and dairy-free casserole. For her very veggie lasagna, she cooks onion, garlic, red pepper, mushrooms and zucchini in a little olive oil, then adds spinach. She layers the vegetables with the noodles, marinara sauce and soft tofu fla-vored with basil. The casserole is baked with vegan cheese sprinkled on top.
It’s quite easy to turn favorite dishes into pasta casseroles, as long as they have a sauce. Middle Eastern ground lamb cooked in allspice-scented tomato sauce, then baked with noodles and pine nuts makes an enticing party entree. I used a favorite Asian-inspired main course – chicken baked with orange juice, soy sauce and ginger – to make another casserole.
After broiling the marinated bird, I baked the meat and the sauce with pasta and peas. As a winter main course, it’s even more appealing than the original, and in a casual party setting in which people are sitting around a coffee table, it is easier to enjoy.
PASTA SHELLS BAKED WITH MUSHROOM SAUCE AND SPINACH Creamy mushroom sauce, pasta, spinach and cheese make a delicious casserole. Even if you use low-fat milk, it will be luscious.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.✔ 280 to 300 gr. (10 oz) cleaned fresh spinach leaves or frozen spinach ✔ 2 shallots or green onions, minced ✔ 3 or 4 Tbsp. butter or olive oil ✔ 1⁄4 cup flour ✔ 21⁄4 cups milk – whole, low-fat or nonfat ✔ 4 to 6 oz. mushrooms, sliced ✔ 1⁄4 cup whipping cream (optional) ✔ Freshly grated nutmeg to taste ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste✔ 3 cups medium pasta shells ✔ 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese
Cook spinach uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat about 2 minutes or until wilted. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Chop spinach.
Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over low heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes or until soft but not brown. Remove from heat and stir in flour. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Whisk in milk. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until sauce thickens and comes to a boil.
Stir in mushrooms. Add a pinch of salt, white pepper and nutmeg. Simmer over low heat, whisking often, 7 minutes. Add spinach and heat through. Add cream if desired and heat through. Taste and adjust amounts of salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Preheat oven to 190º C (375º F). Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes or until nearly tender but a little firmer than usual. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl.
Lightly butter a 6- to 7-cup baking dish. Add sauce to pasta and stir. Add 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup cheese, according to your taste. Taste mixture and adjust seasoning. Spoon into baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining 1⁄4 cup cheese.
Bake 20 to 30 minutes or until bubbling. Brown under broiler, about 1 to 2 minutes. Serve from the baking dish.
To prepare this tasty chicken casserole, I use broiled chicken, as well as its marinade, which is made of fresh ginger, orange juice, wine, soy sauce and a touch of honey. As the casserole bakes, the marinade permeates the pasta and the chicken.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.
✔ 1⁄3 cup strained fresh orange juice
✔ 3 Tbsp. soy sauce
✔ 2 Tbsp. dry white wine
✔ 2 or 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
✔ 1 Tbsp. honey
✔ 1 Tbsp finely grated orange zest
✔ 1 Tbsp. grated peeled ginger root
✔ Pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
✔ 700 gr. (11⁄2 pounds) boneless skinless chicken, preferably dark meat
✔ 225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) smooth or ridged penne
✔ 11⁄2 cups frozen peas
✔ 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a shallow dish, mix orange juice, soy sauce, wine, oil, honey, grated orange zest, ginger root and cayenne pepper. Add chicken and turn pieces over to coat them. Cover chicken and refrigerate 1 or 2 hours, turning chicken once or twice.
Preheat broiler or grill. Remove chicken from marinade, reserving marinade in a small saucepan. Broil or grill chicken, brushing twice with marinade, 4 minutes per side or until color inside is no longer pink; check by cutting into a thick piece. Transfer to a board.
Preheat oven to 175º C (350º F). Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Add peas. Drain well, rinse with cold water and transfer to a large bowl.
Cut chicken into strips. Bring reserved marinade to a simmer, pour over pasta mixture and mix well. Add chicken strips, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Oil a 10-cup casserole dish. Spoon pasta mixture into casserole. Cover and bake 30 minutes or until heated through. Serve hot.