Intriguing, big-baby-big, handcrafted Italian pasta 'shells' stuffed with a spicy meat and zucchini mixture, crowned with soft Asiago all nestled into a creamy, sharp cheddar, tomato-laced bechamel sauce and baked to hot, melty perfection. Bella!
We have this amazing Italian deli/grocery store in Kelowna. I'd go everyday if I could! Valoroso overflows with Italian food intrigue to the nth degree. The aisles fairly bulge with imported ingredients that the wanting of is so potent a girl can barely contain herself.
Over the past few months some unique pastas from Gragnano, in the heart of the Lattari Mountains with views of Naples Bay far below, have been showing up on the bountiful shelves of Valoroso. "Making pasta in Gragnano is an ancient form of art that involves history, culture, patience, secrets and traditions. To be born and raised in Gragnano means to be surrounded by the exalting taste and scent of durum wheat semolina and from the pasta that comes from it."
But now, with discriminating foodies demanding quality imported goods, Gragnanoians aren't the only lucky ones to be able to savour these artisanally, lovingly made pastas. Life is good!
Whilst browsing treasure packed aisles the other day, I eye-spied a stack of boxes that made my little heart thump-thump with all it's might. Right there in that store, far, far from the mountains of Lattari, I was holding a box that someone from the Moccia family, days before, had proudly packed up for a stranger to enjoy.
And let me tell you, this wasn't just any, 'wow, that's a cool looking pasta' box. This was a box holding 4 individual earthenware baking pots, also crafted in the mountains near Naples, Italy. Plunked inside each pot was a cello wrapped, outspoken pasta shape, measuring about 4 inches across. Mamma Mia that's one big pasta! Turns out it is the world's 'biggest pasta shape", that La Fabbrica della Pasta de Gragnano introduced at the 2009 Flavors and Knowledge Fair in Pompeii, Italy. Cool!
Needless to say, I was so far beyond any self-control, at this point, that not having 2 of these boxes for my very own would have been sheer lunacy.
Now, you might not be lucky enough to find these charmingly hunky pastas at a shop near you, but the recipe I use here will turn 'ordinary' and more accessible jumbo sea shell pastas into a Gratin of Goodness which will make you grin.
"Life is a combination of magic and pasta."
~ Federico Fellini
CACCAVELLA BELLA - Spicy Meat~Zucchini Filling with Cheddar-Tomato Bechamel
I prepared my Caccavella ahead of time so I could just pop them in the oven when my company arrived. Easy peasy entertaining.
1/2 large, sweet onion, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound lean ground beef
3 plump garlic cloves, minced
2 good pinches dried red chili flakes
1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, buzzed in the blender
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sweet basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup fresh zucchini, diced fairly small
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
1/2 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, buzzed in blender
2 1/2 - 3 cups grated old/sharp cheddar cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 box (4) Caccavella di Gragnano
About 1/4 pound soft Asiago cheese, sliced or grated
Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Toss in chopped onion and saute, stirring occasionally and reducing heat if necessary about 5-10 minutes until onions are a caramelized, light golden brown. Sprinkle with salt pepper. Add ground beef, breaking up with a wooden spoon and sizzle until cooked through and starting to brown. Add garlic and chili flakes, stir to combine and saute about 2 minutes. Add 1 cup buzzed tomatoes, basil and oregano. Stir and let simmer 5 minutes. Toss in zucchini dice and simmer another 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.
Melt butter in a medium pot, over medium-high heat. Stir in flour and let mixture bubble 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium and gradually whisk in milk. Keep whisking until mixture thickens and is velvety smooth. Whisk in 1/2 cup buzzed tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add cheddar, salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce and whisk until cheese is melted. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
In large pot bring salted water to a good boil. Carefully add 4 caccavella pastas and cook for 15 minutes, according to package directions. Drain carefully. Fill pot back up with ice cold water and immerse cooked caccavella in pot to cool off, then drain again.
Fill each caccavella with meat-zucchini mixture. Spoon a layer of cheese sauce in the bottom of the individual earthernware pots and place filled pasta on top. Fill the pots,around the sides of the pasta, with sauce, almost to the top edge of the caccavella. Top with grated or sliced Asiago.
Preheat oven to 350F and bake 30 to 40 minutes until irresistably bubbly and hot through and through. È squisito!
**Great minds cook alike!! You'll have to check out my friend Val's blog, More Than Burnt Toast, 'cuz she's got a fantastic recipe using Caccavella as well. Seems we're both equally as enamored by the foodie goodies at Valoroso**