Holiday meals at our house always seem to observe the same format: appetizers, followed by pasta, onto a complete meat course (including potato & vegetable) and then dessert. Over the years I've been inconspicuously trying to whittle this routine down. It's not that I don't love our family holiday meal traditions it's just that these days it's harder and harder to eat such large amounts of food.
This year for Easter I've decided that instead of two separate courses I will combine the meat and pasta into one. I'm not sure how this is going to fly with the family; but I guess I will find out soon enough. The baked pasta dish below is so good I think they may just forget there's no meat course being served.
I found this recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks Molto Italiano by Mario Batali. Laden with cheese and chunks of parmacotta, which is cured ham, this dish has all the elements of Easter at our house wrapped into one.
Baked Pasta With Ham
Makes 8 servings
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound Italian cooked ham, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 rib celery, thinly sliced
1 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 cups basic tomato sauce
1 1/2 pounds ziti
1 pound fresh ricotta
8 ounces hard provolone, cut into small dice
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
In a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until smoking. Add the ham cubes and brown for 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the carrot, onion, and celery and cook until the vegetables are golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Add the wine, bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook until the meat is just about falling apart, about 20 minutes. Transfer the meat to a large bowl. Keep the sauce warm.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450F. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add 2 tablespoons salt.
Cook the ziti in the boiling water for 1 minute less than the package directions, until still very al dente. While the pasta is cooking place the ricotta in a small bowl and stir in a ladle of the pasta cooking water to "melt" it.
Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the meat. Add the ricotta, provolone, and tomato sauce and stir to combine.
Grease a round 12-inch deep pie dish or a casserole with olive oil. Place a ladle of the cheese and sauce mixture in the bottom of the dish, followed by a layer of the pasta and meat mixture. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the Parmigiano over, then repeat with another layer of the cheese and sauce mixture over the pasta and meat, and Parmigiano. Continue until all the ingredients are used up.
Bake for 25 minutes, until bubbling and heated through. Serve in warmed pasta bowls.