With a song in my heart I handcrafted an already scrumptious Marcella Hazan recipe into a luscious, creamy pasta concoction scattered with buried treasures disguised as tiny meatballs. Once again, Grazie Marcella!
To Marcella Hazan.......I can't even begin to count the ways that your recipes, techniques, culinary prowess and passion to bring us 'real Italian' have made my life more delicious. (I secretly pretend all the time that you are my very own Italian auntie.) With what follows, Marcella, I am truly apologetic. No recipe of yours needs betterment. But..... I AM CANADIAN. I love Cheddar cheese. For that, I make no apologies. Us Canadians, we're damn good at cheddar. Fantastic in fact. So when I saw your mouth-watering 'Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs', in the blink of an eye, my Canadian-ness went all happy and wham! bam!....I cheddared that recipe. ♪ ♫ ♫ Hallelejah! Hallelujah!! ♪ ♫ ♫
Just because I had it on hand, instead of rigatoni, I used loopy, fun, made-in-Italy, hollow-kind of fusili that boasts twists that are so strategically planned so as to hoarde happy little pockets of any sauce that they meet. And then there's the genius of perfectly seasoned, dreamily tender, Parmesan laced "raspberry-sized" meatballs. Oh Marcella!!! That's enough to make grown men whimper.
On top of all that, this lip-smacking version of macaroni and cheese turned out to be fun (I was singing old Dean Martin songs the whole time) to make. Bonus! And, I put it all together ahead of time and threw it in the oven to bake when my company arrived. Make-aheads make me very happy. Making Baked Fusili with Tiny Meatballs made me smile out loud. You know those recipes you make that just feel good? Well this is one of those. Mangia!
Heaps of heartfelt thanks out to Deb too of Smitten Kitchen who further inspired me to try my hand at this dish. Deb's blog is the 'one' that started it all for me........my stars were aligned the day I stumbled on Smitten Kitchen and it remains my 'blog touchstone' to this very day.
BAKED FUSILI WITH TINY MEATBALLS
Serves 4-6 as a main and 8-10 as a side dish. (probably)
For the meatballs:
1/4 cup milk
1 slice good white bread trimmed of its crust
1/2 pound ground pork and 1/2 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
1/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan)
Sea or Kosher salt
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup flour, spread on a plate
Vegetable oil for frying
For the bèchamel:
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
5 cups milk
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 pound Old Cheddar cheese, grated or diced
1 pound good Italian fusili or rigatoni
1 1/2 cups freshly grated black-skinned Asiago or parmigiano-reggiano (I used Asiago, oh my, my, my)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup milk or cream
Make the meatballs: Heat the milk, but don’t let it simmer. Tear pieces of the white bread into it and let it soak for 5 minutes, before picking it up with your hand, squeezing it of excess milk and putting it in a large mixing bowl.
Add the pork, beef, garlic, parsley, grated cheese, egg, salt, and pepper. Combine all the ingredients with a fork until they are evenly mixed (or “amalgamated”, as Hazan so charmingly says).
Pinch off a small lump of meat, about the size of a raspberry and roll the lump into a ball in the palm of your hands. When all the meatballs have been shaped (a process that took less time than I had expected, just the same), roll them in the flour, 15 to 20 at a time. Place the lightly floured meatballs in a strainer and shake it smartly to dispose of excess flour.
Put enough vegetable oil in a skillet to rise about 1/4-inch up the sides of the pan and turn on the heat to medium high. When the oil is hot, put as many meatballs in the skillet as will fit without overcrowding. Brown them until they form a nice crust all around. When one batch is done, transfer it with a slotted spoon to a platter covered with paper towels to drain and do the next batch until all are done.
Make the béchamel: In a large-ish saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, add the flour and stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or flat whisk until combined. Gradually add the milk, a little at a time, whisking steadily and heartily to keep it smooth. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg and Worcestershire sauce and stir the sauce until it thickens. Add the Cheddar and stir until melted and incorporated into the smooth sauce.
Assemble the dish: Cook the fusili in a pot of well salted water. Drain when still just short of al dente, and combine immediately in bowl with two-thirds of the bèchamel and all the meatballs.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Heavily butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or 3.5 to 4 quart oval baking dish. Spread the fusili and meatball mixture in the pan, leveling it off with a spatula. Pour the milk or cream over the dish, then spread the rest of béchamel on top and sprinkle with the grated Asiago or Parmesan.
Bake for 20 - 30 minutes until a golden brown crust forms on top.
**If preparing ahead, make the meatballs, set aside. Make the cheesy bechamel, set aside to come to room temperature. Once sauce is cooled, cook fusili and rinse with cold water. Assemble, cover and bake when ready for 30-45 minutes until bubbly and has a gorgeous golden brown top crust.**