Pasta al forno

So, 2011 is here and it is New Year’s Day. I think that today’s dish is a pretty good way to begin the year’s meals.

Oven-baked pasta dishes are always great, the classic is lasagne but there are plenty of variations. Al forno means “cooked in the oven” so this is really just a pasta bake.

I made a meat sauce with a soffritto (also called a mirepoix in French cooking) of diced onion, carrot, garlic and celery slowly cooked in olive oil, plus some chopped pancetta, beef and veal mince, a grating of nutmeg, some thyme and parsley, salt and pepper, a squeeze of tomato purée and a tin of chopped tomatoes, plus a nice glug of red wine. This was allowed to cook down for an hour or so, until the sauce was nice and thick and rich.

This was then mixed with some ready cooked pasta. I used some tubes but you can use any shapes you want. The important thing is to use a hard, durum wheat pasta here, not a lighter egg pasta because you don’t want the pasta to become soggy.

The dish was topped off with a layer of bechamel sauce and grated Parmesan and baked until the top had formed a nice golden crust. With a simple salad, that was a lovely laid-back supper dish.

There are plenty of things you can do with a dish like this. You can add breadcrumbs to the topping or use different cheeses, or use a cheese sauce instead of bechamel. You can vary the meat too; just beef is good, or you can add in pork mince instead of the veal. You can use leftover roast meat too, minced or finely chopped, or you can make the sauce vegetable-based, sliced courgettes and cubes of aubergine are nice and fennel is a good addition to the soffritto base. You can use chopped up salami too, if you have any odds and ends around instead of pancetta or even diced mortadella sausage. Instead of wine you could add a decent glug of Marsala or even the end of a bottle of red vermouth. Dishes like this are a great standby and are really only limited by what you have available.;

A hearty red wine is the ideal thing to drink with a dish like this, nothing fancy or expensive. Obviously an Italian red would be a classic partner, but a southern French red or something full-bodied from Spain or Portugal would work equally well. We had an Australian wine made from an Italian grape. The wine was The Black Devil 2008 from the Westend Estate in New South Wales, made from the Aglianico grape. It was from Laithwaites but is no longer listed. A shame really, because it was a wonderful mouth-filling rich wine that worked well with the pasta.

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