There is an Italian saying that "spaghetti loves company," and it has become apparent in the past few years that the reverse is just as true. Perhaps because it is a quick meal to put together -- one stop on the way home for freshly made pasta, a jar of sauce or the necessary ingredients to make one, a few greens for a salad, and a loaf of crusty Italian bread. The meal is satisfying and warning in the middle of a cold winter, and guests always seem to appreciate homemade manicotti or lasagna.
The rage this year seems to be the pasta machine -- whether it is the type that kneads and rolls out the dough, or one in which you simply put flour and eggs and end up with ribbons of fettuccine. They say these turn out pasta in less time than it takes to boil the pot of water to cook it.
Pasta can be a lot of fun to cook because it is so versatile. It can be combined with almost any other food -- as a body to soups, coated with sauces, and mixed with meat, fish, vegetables, or cheese. The sauce may be as light as a coating of butter, cream, and cheese, as in Fettuccine Alfredo, or a thick and meaty tomato sauce, or whatever happens to be in the kitchen cupboard.
Most shapes of pasta can be used interchangeably to vary the appearance of a dish. As a rule, though, twisted and curved shapes such as wheels and shells are used with meaty sauces, fine ribbons for creamy, cheesy sauces, wide bands of lasagna for layered casseroles, and manicotti shells for filling.
For perfectly cooked pasta, keep an eye on the pot as it cooks, and taste a strand every so often until the pasta is still firm, but tender. Then move quickly, since cooked pasta cools rapidly, and as it cools it sticks together.
Have the sauce ready to use the instant the pasta is drained. Hot sauce and warmed plates also help prevent cooling. If the pasta will be cooked further, as in manicotti and cannelloni, it should be cooked only until it is flexible, then plunged in cold water to stop the cooking and placed on a towel to drain.
Small, filled shapes of pasta offer little challenge to the diner, compared with long, slippery strands, which makes them perfect for entertaining. The following recipe for manicotti would be a nice dish to serve company. All of the recipes come from a terrific new book, Pasta, published by Time-Life books, as part of the Good Cook series. Hearty Manicotti 1/2 pound manicotti, 16 shells, boiled and drained 1 pound Italian sausages, each pricked in several places with a fork 1 pound lean ground beef 1 medium-size onion, finely chopped 4 cups pureed tomato 6 ounces canned tomato paste 1 1/4 cups water 1 teaspoon basil Salt 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 pounds ricotta or sieved cottage cheese 1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, diced 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 3/4 teaspoon basil 1/2 teaspoon salt
In a covered Dutch oven over medium heat, cook sausages in 1/4 cup of the water for five minutes. Uncover; brown sausages well and drain on paper towels. Discard sausage fat, then brown ground beef with onion. Stir in pureed tomato, tomato paste, basil, salt to taste, sugar, pepper, and remaining water. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes.' Cut sausages into bite-size pieces and add to mixture. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine ricotta or cottage cheese, mozzarella, parsley, basil, and salt. Stuff filling into cooked manicotti shells.
Spoon half the meat sauce into one 13-by-9- inch or two 9-inch square baking dishes. Arrange half the stuffed shells in one layer on top of the sauce. Spoon most of the remaining sauce -- reserving about 3/4 cup -- over the shells; top with remaining shells in one layer. Spoon the reserved meat sauce over the top.Sprinkle manicotti with grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes.
Although this dish is called Pasta Primavera for springtime, different vegetables can be substituted according to the season. Fresh broccoli as available year round, but if zucchini and green beans are not available fresh in your area, try using cauliflower, carrots, peppers -- any combination as long as it is colorful. Pasta Primavera 1 pound fettuccine 3 or 4 medium-size zucchini, trimmed but not peeled, cut into small pieces 1/2 pound broccoli, trimmed and cut into small pieces 1/2 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into small pieces 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 6 shallots 1 garlic clove 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil Salt and pepper 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Fill a large pot with water and start heating it for the pasta. Heat oil in a large skillet and add green vegetables. Chop shallots into pan and push garlic through a press into the mixture. Cover and oil-steam for five minutes.
Uncover, stir to mix well, and add parsley and basil. Cover again and continue to cook, until the vegetables are done to your taste; they should still be crunchy.
Meanwhile cook the pasta until al dente. When the vegetables are ready, season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss with the pasta and sprinkle with cheese.
Mascarpone is a fresh cheese with a largecurd consistency produced in Lombardy, Tuscany, and southern Switzerland. It has a sweet, yet slightly acid, taste. Crescenza is a creamy, mild Italian cheese, sold in rectangles weighing from 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds, with a slightly salty taste and supple texture. In Wisconsin a semisoft disk weighing about 1/2 pound is marketed as "a natural crescenza type" under the brand name Maybella. Spinach and Cheese Cannelloni 16 large cannelloni 2 cups white sauce, recipe follows 1 pound spinach 10 ounces ricotta cheese 2 1/3 cups grated Parmesan cheese 5 ounces mascarpone or crescenza cheese Salt and freshly ground pepper Freshly ground nutmeg White sauce 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 2 1/2 cups milk Salt White pepper Freshly grated nutmeg
Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour to make a roux and cook gently, stirring, for two or three minutes. Pour in all of the milk at once, whisking constantly to blend the mixture smoothly. Increase heat and continue whisking while the sauce comes to a boil.
Reduce heat to very low and simmer, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sauce from developing a top skin or sticking to bottom of pan. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Whisk again until smooth. Set aside until needed.
Put plenty of salted water on to boil for the pasta. When the water boils, put in cannelloni one at a time, stir, and cook over medium heat. When cannelloni are half cooked, after five or six minutes for commercial pasta or two minutes for fresh pasta, remove them and plunge into cold water. Then drain and spread them out on cloth towels.
While pasta is cooking, put chopped spinach into a bowl with ricotta, about half of the Parmesan, the mascarpone or crescenza cheese, and a pinch each of salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Mix together well.
Thoroughly butter an ovenproof dish large enough to hold the cannelloni in a single layer. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Fill cannelloni with spinach and cheese mixture and arrange them in the dish. Sprinkle with the rest of the Parmesan cheese and cover with the white sauce. Place in oven for about 20 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and surface is lightly colored. Serve hot. Tomato Sauce With Tiny Meatballs 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped, or 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 3 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried 32 ounces canned tomatoes, coarsely chopped with their liquid reserved Salt and pepper Tiny meatballs 1 pound lean ground beef 1 pound lean ground veal or pork 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup Romano cheese, grated 1 garlic clove, finely chopped 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped 1/4 cup fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried 2 eggs 2 cups bread crumbs 1 1/2 cups water or beff stock
In a large kettle, saute onion or garlic cloves, parsley, and basil in hot oil. When it turns delicately, brown, add all other ingredients for sauce, stir well, and let it cook slowly while preparing meatballs.
Mix together all ingredients for meatballs. Occasionally wetting the palms of your hands, roll meat mixture into marble-size balls. Carefully drop meatballs into cooking sauce and continue cooking slowly for 2 hours, stirring occasionally, Makes about 3 to 4 quarts of sauce.