Friday, October 7, 2011

Old Isn't Always Good

Fig.1. Baked pasta.  Disclaimer: It looks better than it tastes.

It’s generally believed that old, traditional recipes will result in great tasting meals.  That isn’t always the case as I discovered just last week.  Sometimes tasty ingredients, such as cheese or cured meats, are just the type of elements a recipe needs to propel it from a good meal to an unforgettable one.  The reason many old, Italian recipes don’t call for these tasty ingredients vary. From a geographical reason, to an economic one, ingredients such as salt, spices and cheese were unattainable for many Italians fifty years ago, and so, they made the best with what they had. 
If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know my position that Italian ingenuity, with regard to food and cuisine, has no rival (except possibly China).  And that when it comes to making the sparsest and simplest of ingredients taste good, Italy will win wooden spoon down. So imagine my surprise when I made a recipe from a Slow Food book and it tasted, well, tasteless.
The recipe in question is Pasta al Forno Con Prociutto Cotto, Fontina e Bechamel. The idea seems great: cheese, pasta, butter, flour, cream, more cheese, and did I mention pasta.  All cooked in the oven until golden and gooey.  The end result was a dish that tasted bland and starchy; a dish that needs to be tweaked for sure.  I’m all for recording old recipes for posterity and tradition, but dishes such as these should come with a disclaimer that reads: I don’t taste as good as I look. 
When in doubt, always side on the air of umami. Some parmesan cheese and less pasta (I can’t believe I just wrote that) are all this recipe needs to make it unforgettable. My additions and suggestions to the original recipe are indicated in parenthesis. 

Pasta al Forno Con Prociutto Cotto, Fontina e Bechamel
Makes 4

12 pasta circles 1/4" thick-(or 20 thin pasta circles. Make pasta and cut into circles the size of your oven dish.  If making pasta isn`t your thing, simply buy fresh lasagna sheets and cut into circles.  I prefer the thin ones as I find the thicker pasta the original recipe calls for make the dish too starchy.)
3 cups of bechamel
2 1/2 cups grated fontina cheese
12 prociutto cotto circles, 1/4" thick (If you can't find prociutto cotto, use ham)
(1 cup parmesan cheese, not in the original recipe but it's all this recipe needs to make it taste as good as it looks.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F
Prepare your pasta by cutting it, boiling it in salted water, and draining.  Make your bechamel sauce and set aside. 
In a non-stick pan, fry procuitto cotto on both sides until golden.
Once you have all the ingredients in front of you, you're ready to assemble.  Begin by coating the bottom of the oven dish or ramekin with bechamel, followed by some grated fontina, pasta circle, and grated parmesan. Keep adding in the same order until you reach the top.  Finish the pasta by topping it with bechamel and fontina. Place the dishes or ramekins on a cookie sheet (there will be spillage) and cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Let it cool for 15 minutes before tucking in.

Fig.2. Bechamel first, followed by fried ham.
Fig.3. More ham and more cheese.

Fig.4. A circle of pasta

Fig.5.Make sure you end with a generous amount of bechamel and fontina and parmesan cheese.

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