Exquisite Italian dishes are easy on the food budget

It takes a knowledgeable, imaginative cook to create a dish that can be elegantly presented to company on a special occasion, but which is composed of simple, inexpensive ingredients. Roberta Dowling, head of Degustibus Inc., a catering service in Cambridge, Mass., is just that kind of cook, and she takes great pleasure in preparing food in original ways.

Roberta's enthusiam for good food is easily conveyed to her students at Creative Cuisine, a gourmet cooking school connected with the catering service. The school offers courses in classic French and Italian cuisines, as well as a variety of other classes including Nouvelle Cuisine, visiting chefs from Boston area restaurants and a professional chef's program that begins this month.

When we visited Roberta in her kitchen she was arranging sauteed slices of eggplant around the edge of a drum-shaped mold, and filling it with alternating layers of ziti mixed with cheeses and a meaty tomato sauce, and more eggplant. After the dish is baked, it can be unmolded onto an attractive serving plate and brought right into the dining room.

The eggplant mold is pretty to look at, and it is also a meal in itself, needing only a salad and perhaps a crusty warm loaf of Italian bread to accompany it. Here is Roberta's recipe. Timballo di Melanzane 1 large eggplant or two 1-pound eggplants, cut into thin slices Flour for dredging 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped 1/2 cup carrots, finely chopped 1 pound lean ground beef 2 pound, 4 ounce Italian peeled tomatoes 1/2 cup frozen peas 2 tablespoons butter 4 cups ziti, cooked and drained 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese 1/4 cup Romano cheese

Sprinkle eggplant slices with salt and let stand weighted in a colander for 1 hour.

In a saucepan, heat oil and saute onion, carrots, and celery until lightly colored. Add ground beef little by little and cook over moderate heat stirring for five minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer sauce for approximately 1 hour or until oil surfaces to top. Add peas.

Rinse eggplant and pat it dry. Dredge slices lightly in flour, patting off any excess flour. In a large skillet saute eggplant in batches in 1/4 inch of hot oil turning it once and adding more oil as necessary, until it is browned, and transfer to paper towels to drain.

Grease an 8-inch tube pan (8 cup) with butter. Line pan, including tube, with prepared eggplant slices, overlapping them slightly and providing an overhang of about 2 inches all around edges of pan and tube. In a bowl combine ziti, Parmesan and Romano cheese, and 2 1/2 cups of meat sauce. Fill lined mold with one-third of mixture and a layer of eggplant, continue to fill mold in the same manner, ending with pasta. Fold overhanging eggplant slices over filling, enclosing it completely. Brush top with a little olive oil.

Bake the timballo in a preheated 375 degree F. oven for 30 minutes or until hot to the center. Let it stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. To unmold, run a sharp knife around sides of tube and invert onto a heated platter. If desired, pour remaining sauce around timballo.

Recipe (c) Roberta A. Dowling, September 1977.m

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