On this one, don’t even ask. I was at a church potluck supper (back in the Stone Age, when I attended them), where I tasted a singularly delicious casserole. Now, I know that in the modern world casseroles are, to put it mildly, looked down upon. But I took one taste and immediately went on a frenzied hunt for the person who brought it. It’s kind of fun for me to remember, because although my tastes in food have grown considerably more sophisticated over the years, I have never lost my love for this wonderful family casserole. I sorta credit it with my children happily adapting their taste buds to the (then) alien flavor imparted by wine. It is also one of those great dishes that does it all; that is it delivers your protein, vegetable, and starch all in one delicious pan. Kids adore this, adults adore this (nowadays, when more trendy food reigns supreme, perhaps mainly because kids eat it without a fuss). It also freezes well. Give it a shot. I guarantee that it will work in at least one of your food slots. Potlucks are a shoe-in.
Note: The addition of dry sherry to the sauce is what makes it so tasty, so whatever you do, don’t try to replace it with some nice white wine; you’ll ruin it. I keep a nice cheap bottle of something like Taylor Pale Dry on hand specifically for this dish (and my Seafood Newburg).
NEOPOLITAN BEEF CASSEROLE
From someone I hunted down at a church supper, 40 (very) odd years ago
1 T oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 medium-sized carrots diced
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef
10-ounce box of button mushrooms, sliced
2 (6-ounce each) cans tomato paste
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, (San Marzano is always preferable), broken up
2/3 cup dry sherry (I keep a nice cheap dry sherry on hand for this, like Taylor)
1 ½ tsp. each, salt, sugar, dry basil and dried oregano
½ tsp. each, pepper and garlic powder
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
10-ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Heat oil in a good-sized Dutch oven type pan over medium heat, and sauté onion, garlic and carrots until onions are golden, about 5 minutes. Add beef and cook, stirring, until browned and crumbly. Halfway through, add the mushrooms to get them started cooking. Add tomato paste, tomatoes and their juices (break them up with a spoon), sherry, and all seasonings, and cook, uncovered for about 30 minutes, or till somewhat thickened.
Cook macaroni in boiling salted water, according to package directions. Al dente is best, as it cooks further in the oven. Drain well and mix with the drained, squeezed spinach. Layer half of the macaroni mixture in a lightly oiled large lasagna pan. Top with ½ of the meat sauce and ½ of the cheese. Repeat layering, ending with the last of the cheese. Bake uncovered in a 375° F oven for 35 to 45 minutes, or till bubbling.
Orecchiette With Prosciutto and Peas is another dish (there haven’t been that many) that stopped me cold in my tracks the first time I tasted it! A dear friend and I were dining at a favorite restaurant, Cavey’s, a wonderful half Italian (upstairs), half French (downstairs) restaurant in Manchester, Connecticut. It was a first course, and therefore not meant to be particularly attention-getting, since the entrée was to follow. But for me it was the showcase dish of the whole dining experience. Blindsided again! The taste hit me so solidly in my “comfort” zone that I simply couldn’t let go of it.
But it wasn’t just the taste, although that would have been sufficient to more than grab my attention. Oh, no, I was equally smitten with the way the peas managed to seek out and nestle themselves snugly into the hollows of the orecchiette (“little ears”). Just irresistible. Same old story: the hunt was on. I began to look, with whatever means I had at the time (this long preceded the internet), for a way to replicate the recipe. Book stores, used book stores, libraries, of course; the game was ever-so-much more challenging in those days (sigh). I loved it. I forget where my adventures led me, but for you that is actually pretty irrelevant. All you need is the recipe. It is sooo simple, sooo fast, and sooo delicious, and ever sooo kid-plus-adult-friendly that I recommend it most highly. Here you go.
Note: Orecchiette are not always easy to locate, but I find that the medium shell shapes are a great alternative. Barilla makes a nice one. All you need is a wee scooped-out vessel for those little peas!
Serves 4 to 6
ORECCHIETTE WITH PEAS, PROSCIUTTO AND CREAM
1 pound orecchiette
3 T butter
1 small white onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup frozen peas (fresh are fine)
2 T water
4 ounces prosciutto, cut into thin strips
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Cook pasta according to package directions.
Meanwhile, warm 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. When butter starts to bubble, add onion and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until translucent, stirring often.
Add the peas and water to the pan and cook 3 minutes, stirring. Stir in the prosciutto and cook 2 minutes. Add the cream; bring to a low simmer and cook 5 minutes.
Drain the pasta. Place in a large serving bowl.
Stir remaining 2 tablespoons butter into the cream mixture over low heat until melted.
Stir in the cheese. Pour the sauce over pasta to coat.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.