Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham

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A while ago I pulled out all of my Italian cookbooks to locate a specific pasta recipe, which I never found. But perusing these cookbooks gave me an opportunity to bookmark recipes and remind me of some I’d already bookmarked.

One cookbook was Molto Italiano by Mario Batali.

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Mario Batali is one of those chefs who really marketed himself into TV stardom, with many restaurants, cookbooks, plus Eataly that followed, all thanks to this stardom.

I remember his cooking show on PBS that I really enjoyed. There was no band, no audience clapping, just him cooking in a little kitchen.

At the beginning of every show he would pull down a wall map of Italy and give you some history on the provenance of the dish he was about to prepare – something I really appreciated. I didn’t feel “dumbed down” by Batali, in fact, it was more educational than entertainment.

There were always 2-3 odd people sitting off to the side, not saying anything terribly profound, which always made me wonder how I could get this gig because I’d be so much better at it!!! (Not really because I freeze even when someone pulls out an iPhone.)

In spite of Mario Batali being a household name, and easy to spot with his red hair and orange crocs, I do have a lot of respect for his knowledge and passion for Italian cuisine.

While perusing Molto Italiano I spotted a dish that really spoke to me.

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It’s baked pasta with ricotta and ham. Simple, like most all Italian recipes, but it sounded nice and comforting for this time of year. Plus my husband loves ham and I don’t make enough ham recipes.

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I’d recently mentioned that I don’t make casseroles. I don’t want to insult casserole lovers, it’s just that I wasn’t raised on them. And most of them look like regurgitated food, which is my biggest issue with them. I still remember my first experience with a casserole (tuna?) when my neighbor made one for us after my first baby was born. All I will say is that there were potato chips on top. I’m still traumatized by that.

So although casserole-like, this pasta bake is actually somewhat layered. It Is a delightful meal, served with a green salad, or with anything green for that matter. Here is the recipe:

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note: There is a glitch in the recipe that I will resolve below. I had to study the recipe for 30 minutes to figure out what was wrong!

Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham
Pasticcio di Maccheroni*

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound Italian cooked ham, preferably parmacotto, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 onion, 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. (I used onion, mushrooms and carrot.)

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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 50 minutes. Transfer the meat to a large bowl. Keep the sauce warm.

This is the beginning of my misunderstanding of this recipe. One is to actually separate the ham from the sauce and place the ham in a large bowl. I found this impossible to do.

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Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.

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Cook the ziti in the boiling water for 1 minute less than the package directions, until still very al denote. 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.

It’s the above paragraph that really makes this recipe confusing. The pasta is supposed to be with the ham that has been removed from the red sauce, and the ricotta, provolone and remaining red sauce are supposed to be mixed together in a separate bowl.

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Grease a round and deep 12-inch pie dish or 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, then pasta and meat, and Parmigiano. Continue until all the ingredients are used up.
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Bake for 25 minutes, until bubbling and heated through. Serve in warmed pasta bowls.
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You could always offer more Parmigiano, but I felt this pasta bake was cheesy enough.
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* Pasticcio, similar to its Greek sister pastitsio, also made with ziti, is commonly served at Easter.

Note: Because I couldn’t separate the ham from the sauce, I left it all together. To compensate, I added extra red sauce to the ricotta and cheese mixture. The whole pasta bake benefitted from having probably about 50% more red sauce in it, I think, than what’s listed in the ingredients.

Pastitsio

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My introduction to Greek cuisine began with the set of cookbooks that introduced me to many International cuisines – the Time-Life series of cookbooks called “Foods of the World.” Included in the set are beautifully photographed hardback books describing the cuisines and cultures, as well as smaller, spiral-bound recipe books.

The set was gifted to me by mother, because she owned and loved hers. They were also my first cookbooks, so as I learned how to cook, I also learned about various cuisines. Had I known better, I might have been intimidated, but I just jumped in and started cooking.

One week I’d make meals from the Ethiopian cookbook, the next week Japan, the next Italy, and so forth. One of the cookbooks was “Middle Eastern Cooking,” which included foods from Greece as well as Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and other countries from that part of the world.

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Over the years I made moussaka, chicken baked in red sauce with cinnamon, grilled pork kabobs smothered in oregano, and many more lovely recipes. But one that I really loved was Pastitsio. To me it was way more fun than moussaka.

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When I first made it, my husband loved it. But over the 30-plus years that I’ve been cooking, he’s somehow decided that he hates lamb. It’s just not the same with beef, so I’m using a 50-50 mixture. Who knows, in a future post, I might be writing from my own apartment…

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Pastitsio

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt
1 pound ziti
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 1/2 pound lean ground lamb
2 cups chopped, drained, canned tomatoes
1 cup canned tomato purée
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon oregano crumbled
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Black pepper
1/2 cup soft, fresh bread crumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup grated Kefalotiri or Parmesan

In a large pot bring 6-8 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil over high heat and drop in the ziti. Stirring occasionally, cook the pasta for 10-15 minutes, or until soft but still somewhat resistant to the bite. Immediately drain the pasta and set aside.
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Meanwhile, prepare the lamb and the cream sauce. In a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, heat 6 tablespoons of the olive oil over moderate heat until a light haze forms above it. Add the onions and, stirring frequently, cook for 5 minutes, or until they are soft and transparent but not brown.

Add the lamb and, mashing it frequently with the back of spoon or fork to break up any lumps, cook until all traces of pink disappear.


Stir in the tomatoes, purée, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs, the beaten egg, and set aside.


Sauce:
4 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour

To make the cream sauce, combine 3 cups of milk and the butter in a small pan until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan. Remove from the heat. In a heavy 2- to 3- quart saucepan, beat the eggs with a whisk until they are frothy.

Add the remaining 1 cup of milk and 1 teaspoon of salt and, beating constantly, add the flour, a tablespoon at a time.


Stirring constantly, slowly pour in the heated milk and butter mixture in a thin stream and, still stirring, bring to a boil over moderate heat. Continue to boil until the sauce is thick and smooth; set aside.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. With a pastry brush coat the bottom and sides of a 9 x 15 x 2 1/2″ baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle the bottom with the remaining 1/4 cup of bread crumbs and spread half of the reserved pasta on top.


Cover with the meat, smoothing it into the corners with a spatula.
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Then pour 2 cups of the cream sauce evenly on top. Sprinkle with half the grated cheese.
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Make another layer with the remaining ziti, pour over it the rest of the cream sauce, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.


Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is a delicate golden brown.

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If you love moussaka, you’ll definitely love pastitsio. It’s the love red meat sauce, slightly sweetened with cinnamon, layered on noodles, and topped with a rich, cheesy cream sauce that makes it the ultimate in comfort food, Greek style!
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