Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Southern Italian Comfort Food At Its Best

Mrs. Yi has come up with a winner that neither of us had expected. Its inspiration was a relatively mundane recipe that she found in an old and obscure cookbook. The changes that Mrs. Yi made to that recipe to create this one were subtle and casual, but profound. Except for having enjoyed it myself, I would not have believed that a vegetarian Italian country pasta dish that traces its origins to Tuscany could please me anywhere near this much. If you like the kind of southern "Italian" food that's become an American staple, this truly Italian dish could raise your sensibilities to a new level. Anyone into comfort food should love it, as should anyone who's into the slow food movement.

The cookbook that got Mrs. Yi started was Cooking from an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1985, specifically the recipe therein: "Pasta Gratinata con Peperoni," or Baked Peppers and Pasta.

Mrs. Yi's Rigatoni

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, quartered and thinly sliced
2 red bell peppers, peeled, seeded, and cut
lengthwise into 1/2 inch strips*
1 green bell pepper, same treatment as red pepper
1 16 ounce can of Muir Glen tomatoes, drained, and chopped,
with juice reserved
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 pound rigatoni
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
and/or Romano cheese
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
2 tablespoons butter
1 egg white
salt and pepper to taste

* To peel peppers, place in broiler, turning, until charred. Remove, place peppers in a bowl and cover until cool, then peel skin off with your fingers.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or low-sided saucepan, add the onion, and saute over medium heat until transparent. Add the pepper strips, tomatoes, one half cup of the reserved juice, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well and continue cooking, partly covered, stirring occasionally, for five minutes. Remove cover entirely and continue cooking another ten minutes or until excess liquid is evaporated, peppers are cooked but still firm, and sauce is dense but far from beginning to dry out. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Then butter a 9 inch square baking dish approximately 3 inches deep. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a rapid boil, add the pasta, and cook for approximately nine minutes or until pasta is almost al dente, but still undercooked. Drain thoroughly, add butter, 1/4 cup of Parmesan/Romano, and a pinch of nutmeg. Place half the pasta in the bottom of the prepared baking dish and pat down with a wooden spoon. Spread half the Gruyere over the pasta, and spread half the pepper-tomato mixture on top. Repeat the layering with the remaining ingredients, ending with the pepper-tomato mixture. Combine 2 tablespoons of Parmesan/Romano with the egg white and spread it evenly over the top. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, sprinkle with the pine nuts, and then bake for another 15 to 25 minutes, until the top begins to brown. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then serve in the baking dish.

Serves 4