A friend’s Sicilian mother-in-law calls my rustic casserole of baked penne or ziti layered with Wild Mushroom Ragu and ricotta salata “the Big Macaroni”. It IS indeed and is especially perfect for a winter dinner party: the delectable sum of 3 parts: pasta + ragu + cheese. You can make the Mushroom Ragu days ahead and use it for a million quick delicious dishes. And you can assemble the Big Macaroni up to a day ahead and bake when you’re ready to feed your guests (all preparation done). They will die for its crispy chewy top and molten interior.
Recipe: “Big Macaroni” (Ziti with Wild Mushroom Ragù and Ricotta Salata)
You can assemble the casserole up to a day ahead. Cover well and refrigerate. Allow to come to room temperature about 2 hours before baking.
Serves 4 to 6
1 teaspoon olive oil or butter
1 pound tubular pasta, such as penne or ziti
Wild Mushroom Ragù (see recipe below)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
8 ounces ricotta salata cheese or fresh, lightly salted mozzarella, thinly sliced or shaved
Lightly oil a shallow 2-quart casserole and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt well and stir in the pasta. Cook the pasta until slightly underdone, a little firmer than al dente (the pasta will continue cooking in the oven). Drain the pasta and plunge it into a large bowl of cold water to stop the cooking, running cold tap water on it until it is completely cool. Drain well again, dry the bowl and return the pasta to it.
Add the ragù to the pasta and toss until thoroughly mixed. Sprinkle with ½ cup of the Parmigiano and pepper to taste and toss again. Pour half the mixture into the prepared casserole. Arrange the ricotta salata shavings over the top, cover with the remaining pasta, and sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano cheese.
Preheat the oven to 375′. Bake the pasta until heated through and the top is lightly browned and crisp, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve at once.
Recipe for Improvising: Wild Mushroom Ragù
One of my favorite cooking strategies is to a make a big batch of a mutable “base” with which I can improvise appealing dishes, in tandem with whatever is on hand. In fall and winter, that base is often Wild Mushroom Ragù, a rich, hearty, meaty (but meatless), stew-like sauce made with whatever cultivated “wild” mushrooms are available, such as shiitake, cremini, oyster, matsutake and portobello. It’s ideal for meals where you need to serve both carnivores and vegetarians. Because you can make it ahead and freeze it, it allows you to forge wonderful dishes even when life gets wild and you don’t have a moment to spare.
The ragu can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, covered, until ready to use. Or freeze it in 1 or 2-cup containers for up to 2 months, to draw upon in a moment’s notice.
Here are some ideas for using this incredibly versatile ragu:
—a satisfying stew unto itself, with a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano. Sometimes add shredded roasted chicken or pork
—a sauce for pasta such as pappardelle, ravioli and orecchiette. Rather than mixing the ragù right into pasta, toss the cooked pasta with grated aged sheep’s milk cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano and a little pasta cooking water to form a creamy coating; then spoon the ragù on top. The pungent cheese acts as a catalyst between the rich sauce and the pasta, heightening and balancing all the flavors..
—spooned into the center of a simple risotto or polenta
—as a fine sauce to layer into lasagna, as well as in gutsy innovations on traditional eggplant parmigiana
—to make quick pizzas, spread on rounds of frozen pizza dough and topped with shredded fresh or smoked mozzarella, then baked in a hot oven
—in warm hero sandwiches instead of meatballs
—topped with a poached or fried egg for breakfast
— the warmed ragu is wonderful scooped up with thick store-bought rosemary potato chips
Wild Mushroom Ragu
Makes about 4 cups
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup (1/2 ounce) dried wild mushrooms, preferably porcini or morels
1 pound fresh wild mushrooms such as shiitake, cremini, oyster, porcini, morels or portobello’s, in any combination
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
One 28-ounce can Italian peeled tomatoes, chopped, with juices
2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
About 1/2 teaspoon sugar, to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Pour the boiling water over the dried mushrooms in a small bowl, cover and set aside to soak until softened, at least 15 minutes.
Wipe the fresh mushrooms dry with a damp paper towel. Trim off the tough ends and discard. If you are using portobellos, cut out the black gills and discard. Cut larger mushrooms into 1/4-inch-thick slices through the stem; leave smaller ones (under 1 inch) whole.
In a medium saucepan, combine the olive oil, onions and garlic, cover, and cook over moderate heat until the onions begin to wilt, about 5 minutes. Uncover and sauté until they are just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, scoop the dried mushrooms into a strainer, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse them under cool water to remove any grit and press them with the back of the spoon to squeeze out the water. Coarsely chop them and reserve.
Carefully spoon about 3/4 cup of the soaking liquid into the saucepan with the onions, leaving behind any grit. Add the red wine and thyme and boil for 1 minute. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the canned tomatoes and their juices, the tomato paste if desired, the dried mushroom mixture, the sugar, and the salt. Partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender and the ragù is thick, about 15 minutes. Pepper generously. When cool, refrigerate or freeze in a sealed container until ready to use.