Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Southern Italian Cooking" - Baked Bisceglie Pasta (similar to lasagna) for Christmas Eve

Date I made this recipe:  December 24, 2015 – Christmas Eve

Southern Italian Cooking:  Family Recipes from The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Jo Bettoja
Published by:  Bantam Books
ISBN:  0-553-07287-0
From my mother's cookbook collection.  This was given to her by my dad for their anniversary in 1993.
Recipe:  Baked Bisceglie Pasta (a lasagna made with rigatoni instead of lasagna sheets) – p. 232-233

At the risk of repeating myself, my family has always had a pasta dinner for Christmas Even and no way was I breaking that chain this year.  And that's despite the fact that I had Italian food the night before at a local Italian restaurant with my brother and sister-in-law who were in town visiting.  For the record, there is no such thing as too much Italian food.

Given our family tradition, it was rather nice to see my mother's handwriting in the front of the book indicating that this was an anniversary present from my dad.  The holidays are always just a little bit off because they aren't here to celebrate with us anymore so it's important to me that I continue on with our Italian fare.

Because the holidays are so busy – and this year especially with my brother and sister-in-law visiting – I am glad I made the sauce and the meatballs for this dish a week in advance and then just froze them until I needed them.  I even bought the mortadella on a whim one day a while back and when I saw that it was needed for this recipe, I froze that as well.  Mortadella is basically Italian bologna and I love it although I don't get it too often.  Maybe this was a sign?

This dish is a basic lasagna but made with rigatoni.  The layers for this dish are comprised of sauce made with meat and prosciutto; mozzarella; chopped mortadella and tiny meatballs.  I know some Italian families wouldn't dream of making a lasagna without meatballs but we were not one of those families.  And the meatballs were only okay – a little too soft for my taste but hey, you mix them in with the other layers and they were fine.  If I made this again though, I think I'd use my own family meatball recipe.

And speaking of the recipes, there were many, many good recipes from which to choose in this book, highlighting the various regions of southern Italy as well as Sicily.  Swordfish and other fish are extremely popular in Sicily but we never, ever had that when we visited my Sicilian grandmother who lived in New Jersey.  It might have been that its popularity never reached as far as the US or it might have been because it was harder to find in US oceanic waters than in Sicily but regardless, never once did it grace our table.  Other Sicilian dishes though, like caponata, were family favorites. There's a recipe in this book for caponata using artichokes which is not something we were used to but it sounded delicious.  There are also lots of dishes using oranges and lemons and eggplant, all of which are found in southern Italy and Sicily in abundance.

For my menu, I kept it simple and just made the pasta.  And even though I made and froze a few ingredients, I still had my hands full making the pasta, dicing the cheese and the mortadella and just generally getting organized.  And we loved the dish save for one thing:  it got too browned on top.  The recipe doesn't say to cover the dish but you should or else you'll suffer the same fate as we did. 

I should also mention that at the same time I was making this dish, I was also cooking a pork stew with tomatoes, olives and fennel from a Martha Stewart cookbook to serve the next day.  I may not be a Chopped-quality chef, but damned if I can't handle making two dishes at the same time!

The note for this recipe says that this dish is part of a dinner to celebrate the Feast of the Three Saints.  I must say that despite having attended Catholic grade school, I had no idea that there was a feast day for this (although heaven knows, we celebrated every other feast day known to man), nor did I know the three saints for whom this day is celebrated. 

Enter Wikipedia.  According to Wiki, the three saints are Alfio, Filadelpho and Cirino.  (Never heard of them.)  According to Catholic legend, these three brothers were persecuted by the Romans (pre-Christianity) after refusing to worship pagan gods, were killed and were recognized as martyrs/saints.  Who knew?  I have no idea why this particular dish commemorates their feast day but the author said so and so there you have it. It's never a good idea to go up against a fellow paisano!

Even though the Three Saints Feast Day does not fall on Christmas (competing with the birth of Christ is never a good idea), it sounded like a good Christmas Eve dinner so I made it and so should you.

Buon Vigilia di Natale!  (Happy Christmas Eve)

Baked Bisceglie Pasta (Bisceglie is a region in southern Italy) – serves 8 to 10
For the ragu:
¼ cup olive oil
1 small celery stalk, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1-1/2 ounces prosciutto (I think slice), finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ pound ground beef
½ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 quart tomato puree
For the meatballs:
½ pound ground beef
½ cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs
6 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 eggs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup olive oil
To assemble the dish:
1 pound rigatoni
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cpound mortadella, finely chopped
¾ pound mozzarella cheese, finely chopped (about 2-3/4 cups)
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Make the ragu:  Heat the olive oil in a saucepan, preferably terra-cotta.  (Ann's Note:  Oh, darn, I'm all out of terra-cotta saucepans!)  Add the vegetables, prosciutto, salt and pepper.  Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables begin to brown.  Add the ground beef and brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the wine and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, mixing well, and the tomato puree.  Bring back to a boil and simmer, covered, for 1 hour, stirring every now and then.  Season with salt and pepper.  (The ragu can be prepared the day before.)  (Ann's Note:  I made it at least a week in advance and froze it.)

Make the meatballs:  Mix together the meat, pecorino, bread crumbs, parsley, and eggs.  Season with salt and pepper.  Make ¾-inch meatballs.  Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the meatballs in 2 batches over moderately high heat.  Drain on paper towels.  Reserve.  Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400.

Cook the rigatoni in boiling salted water until al dente.  Drain and dress with half the Parmesan.  Add 1 cup of the ragu and mix.

Assemble the dish:  Put 2 or 3 tablespoons of the ragu on the bottom of the prepared dish.  Put one third of the pasta over the ragu, then half the mortadella, half the meatballs, a third of the ragu, and a third of the Parmesan.  Grind pepper over the top.  Make another layer of one third rigatoni and the remaining mortadella, mozzarella, and meatballs.  Spoon over another third of the ragu and sprinkle with another third of the Parmesan.  Add another grinding of pepper.  Spread the remaining pasta, ragu, and Parmesan on top.  Bake for 45 minutes.*  Let the pasta rest at least 15 minutes before serving.

*Ann's Note:  The instructions do not say to cover with foil while baking but you must otherwise your top pasta layer will be overly brown.  If you want, you can probably remove it for the final 15 minutes.

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