Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Naples at Table" - Stuffed Shells with Ragu - Christmas Eve 2014

Date I made this recipe:  Christmas Eve, 2014

Naples at Table – Cooking in Campania by Arthur Schwartz
Published by:  HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN:  0-06-018261-X
Recipe:  Baked Stuffed Tubes with Ragu (Millerighi Imbottiti al Ragu) – p. 191-193

Well, here we are, we are here:  Christmas Eve.  Time to get out the Italian cookbooks!

As is traditional in my family, I made an Italian meal for Christmas Eve dinner.  And sure, I could have gone with my traditional spaghetti and meatballs like my mother made (except in years the church said "No" to meat in which case it was spaghetti with meatless sauce) or my Aunt Rose's homemade manicotti but that defeats the purpose of collecting and then cooking from cookbooks, no?

Exactly.  But still, I was craving something with red sauce (never white – gaaa!) and some kind of meat.  And for that, I needed to temporarily ignore any cookbooks focusing on the northern regions of Italy with their white sauces and gnocchi and whatnot, and look south.  Although Naples, housed within the region of Campania, is not the southernmost part of Italy proper, it is known for red sauces and I'm all about a red sauce.  Besides, red is a fitting color for Christmas, is it not?

Naples' cuisine is closer to my family's Sicilian fare than the northern regions so that didn't hurt.  There were a couple of recipes for meatballs (p. 269-270) or meat rolls (p. 280-281) that I was tempted to try as they used raisins and pine nuts (pignoli) which I know probably raises an eyebrow (but they're good) but I wasn't in that kind of mood that day.  (I am though, a major fan of pine nut cookies "pignoli" and should make them again for the holidays but alas, I get too distracted with other tasty recipes.)

Baked Ziti (p. 190) was also considered as I love baked ziti.  My cousin, Jerry, had a mean hand with this dish, but while good, it was too simple for what I had in mind and didn't contain meat.

In many Sicilian and Italian families, Christmas Eve signals the Feast of the Seven Fishes and I thought about making "a" (as in singular) fish dish (let's not get carried away) but nothing in this book floated my boat (pun intended).  I was "this close" to making squid (calamari) but didn't know if Coastal Seafoods carried any and didn't want to deal with their tiny parking lot just to find out.  And so I passed on that.

So with tax, license and much reading, I decided on the stuffed shell recipe.  Besides, it contained Italian sausage and I ask you – what's not to like about that?  I love Italian sausage.  With peppers.  Italian sausage with peppers, eaten on a boardwalk along the Jersey Shore in the good old summertime is the food of the gods.  But I digress...

And so it came to pass that pasta shells stuffed with a sausage and cheese mixture would do the trick for Christmas Eve and it did...sort of.

Faithful readers know that I get mighty irked by what I consider to be incomplete or worse, useless directions.  And right out of the blocks, I knew I was going to be challenged by this recipe.  So let's break it down:

Step 1 - cook the sausages and onions in a pot over low heat.  Seems easy, right?  And it was except I could tell that the author expected the sausages to yield way more fat/oil than they did and so instead of nicely sautéing the onion, I came close to burning it.  And considering this was step 1 out of 14, this was not a good start.

Here's an observation:  we in this country have a fat fetish.  We don't like fat on any of our meats anymore and so if you head to the meat section of a grocery store, you will find not only fat-free pork chops and steaks but "less fat" (equals less flavor) ground meats.  And now I have a sneaking suspicion that they aren't making sausages like they used to because no way did those sausages release anywhere near the fat they should. 

Then the next step:  Before the onions start to stick to the pot – about 30 minutes – add the wine.  Had I waited 30 minutes for this step, I'd be looking at a charred pot.  So I added the wine about 10 minutes into the process and besides, is there a bad time to add wine to anything?  I think not!

Okay then, after this, I was supposed to let the wine simmer briskly and nearly evaporate for about 5 minutes.  Again, that wine evaporated all right, in about the time it took me to rinse off a spoon.  And if I was a novice cook, that would be one thing but I'm not and so this irked.

Next, you add the tomato paste, water, salt and pepper and then gently simmer this mixture for 1 ½ hours which, of course, was way too long – again!  But my favorite part of this recipe had to be this:  "You should have 1 2/3 to 2 cups of thin ragu."

No.  I had a thick ragu and at best a yield of 4 tablespoons which even math-challenged me could figure out is not 2 cups.  Dammit!  And folks, for the first time in a long time, I cannot even tell you how to "fix" this.  Maybe add more water...or not...maybe add some oil to the pan when browning the sausages...or not.  I don't know.  I added a bit more wine to finish up my bottle but since the wine is meant to (nearly) evaporate, that didn't help with the volume (taste was another matter).  So in my professional pasta sauce-making opinion, I don't think it would hurt to add some crushed tomatoes to this dish, even if the recipe didn't call for it. And so there you go:  more tomatoes + more wine = passable sauce.  More wine = very passable sauce. 

And so at day's end, the only thing I did know for sure ( is that
in a pinch, Trader Joe's marinara sauce will do nicely!  And thank goodness we had some on hand because there was a strong chance that by the time I got done with this sauce, TJ's would have closed for Christmas Eve.  So hooray for them!

Also, the instructions said to strain the sauce, pressing the basil leaves and any solid onion against a strainer, then discard the basil.  Because if I had discarded the basil, half the sauce would have gone with it.  And I was already dealing with a sauce deficit so...

FORTUNATELY, the sausage portion of our program saved the day as it was so tender and good, it was ridiculous.  And when it was finely chopped and mixed with ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese?  Divine!  And as is usual in my family, I had to stop myself from eating half the sausage and cheeses before I put them in the recipe.  And you know, it could be argued that I was only evening up the ratio of available sauce to the cheese and meat mixture. In fact, that's it exactly!

This dish can be made with either manicotti shells or jumbo shells and I used the jumbo shells.  I make my own manicotti shells (they are easy to do) but they are soft and wouldn't hold up to the "stuffing" very well so jumbo shells it was. 

So all in all, I got my red sauce (miniscule as it was) and meat fix on and the entire dish was really good, plus it looked so pretty and that's a plus if making it for a crowd.  The sauce (what I tasted of it) was good but a tad too salty for my tastes.  I think a smidgen of sugar added to the tomato paste would help alleviate that problem.

So here you go folks, with more "Ann's Notes" (i.e. helpful hints) than I think I've ever included for any recipe I've made so far.  Brace yourself and make sure you have enough wine for the sauce and some for you.  Couldn't hurt, might help.

Merry Christmas Eve!

Baked Stuffed Tubes with Ragu = serves 6 to 8; makes 12 manicotti, or 32 jumbo shells
For the ragu
12 ounces sweet Italian sausage
½ cup finely diced onion
½ cup dry white wine
2 ½ cups water
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
For the filling
15 ounces (1 container) ricotta
4 ounces mozzarella, cut into ¼ -inch cubes
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parigian-Reggiano
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigian-Reggiano
8 to 12 ounces pasta (manicotti shells or jumbo shells works best)

To prepare the ragu:
  1. With the point of a knife, prick each sausage 2 or 3 times.  In a 2 ½- to 3-quart saucepan or stovetop casserole, over medium-low heat, combine the onion and the sausages.  Cover the pot and, stirring a couple of times with a wooden spoon, cook until some liquid and fat begins to collect at the bottom of the pan, about 10 minutes. (Ann's Note:  add about a tablespoon of oil to the pan or you will risk burning the whole thing.  There's just not enough fat in the sausages to cook the onions properly.)

  1. Uncover the pot and raise the heat slightly.  Cook, stirring frequently, until most of the onions are deep brown and beginning to stick to the pot, about 30 minutes.  (Ann's Note:  30 minutes is too long as you will risk burning the onions.  Check in every 10 minutes.)  The sausages will not brown much.  Before any onions burn, add the wine and stir well, scraping the bottom of the pot to deglaze it.  Let the wine simmer briskly and nearly evaporate, stirring a few times, about 5 minutes.  (Ann's Note:  again, keep your eye on the pot as the wine evaporated pretty quickly.)

  1. Stir in the water, the tomato paste, and the salt and pepper.  Cover the pan, increase the heat to medium, and bring the liquid to a gentle simmer.  Keeping the pan covered, adjust the heat so the liquid simmers very gently for 1 ½ hours. (Ann's Note:  I know I sound like a broken record, but these times are way off.  If you go for 1 ½ hours, you will have less sauce than I did and that means "not much!"  I simmered it for 60 minutes and even that was too long.)

  1. Uncover the pan, raise the heat slightly, and let the ragu simmer a little more rapidly so the sauce thickens and reduces a little, about 20 minutes.  (Ann's Note:  You know what I'm going to say about the 20 minutes so....Think "10.") Let cool slightly.

  1. Remove the sausages and set aside.  Stain the sauce, pressing the basil leaves and any solid onion with the back of a wooden spoon against the strainer to retrieve every last bit of sauce.  Discard the basil.  You should have 1 2/3 to 2 cups of thin ragu.  (Ann's Note:  Hahahahahahahahaha.  This yield is not even close.  And don't strain or you'll really be crying at the yield.  And then thank your lucky stars that this is the last step involving the sauce.)

To make the filling:

  1. In a bowl, combine the ricotta, the mozzarella, and 2 tablespoons of Parmigiano.

  1. Leave the casings on, finely chop the sausages from the ragu.  Add the sausage, meat, salt and pepper to the cheeses.  Mix very well.

To assemble and bake the dish:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

  1. Cook the pasta very al dente in plenty of boiling, salted water.  (Ann's Note:  I cooked the jumbo shells for 8 minutes; the package said 10.)

  1. Drain the pasta and place it in a bowl of very cold water.  Let the pasta cool.  Drain the pasta again and arrange it on a kitchen towel.  If holding it a while, cover it with a damp towel until you are ready to fill it.  (The pasta can be cooked while the ragu is cooking.)

  1. Spread 3 tablespoons of ragu over the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.  (Ann's Note:  This will use up most of your sauce, oh well.)

  1. Fill each large tube of pasta (i.e. manicotti) with ¼ to 1/3 cup filling, or each jumbo shell with about 1 tablespoon of filling.  Is using shells, close the shells around the filling.  (Ann's "Rant:"  Getting some of the shells open in the first place was like trying to shuck a clam i.e. not fun.  So closing them was near impossible.  At this point, I just started swearing – in English and Italian!)  Place the pasta in the dish as each is filled.

  1. Spoon on the remaining ragu (hahahaha), coating the pasta well and letting the sauce drip into the pan.  Sprinkle evenly and thoroughly with the ¾ cup of Parmigiano, which will seem like a lot.  (Ann's Note:  it will seem like a lot, especially in comparison to the ragu. And by the way, this would be a great time to a) break out your favorite jar of pasta sauce for use with this recipe and b) pour a cocktail.  Or...several.

  1. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until an "inviting golden crust" has formed.  Serve immediately.

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