Last thursday morning I called my parents and spontaneously invited them to dinner on friday night. Sometime in the afternoon it dawned on me that I might have to prepare something in advance as I was going to get home at half past six on friday evening and I had told them to come at seven. Uh-oh. I had to be realistic as to what I could make in the little time I had but I didn't want something that screams "I had no time". My parents love good food and my mother is a fabulous cook so I also wanted to suprise them just a little bit and not rely on one of my staple dishes. I was pondering all kinds of pasta-variations and finally settled on pasta al forno (oven-baked pasta). There are many ways of making this and I love them all, there is something so genuine and comforting about a dish of hearty pasta with a delicious crust of melted cheese. I made mine with a beef stew which I could prepare the night before. It's worth making this in a large quantity, you can always freeze some of the stew and use it another time. I used the pressure cooker to speed up the cooking of the stew, which is a very unorthodox way of proceeding. Ideally, the stew would be simmered for several hours until the meat is tender but this is 2006 and pressure cookers are the working population's best friends.
Pasta al forno (serves 4 hungry guests)
- 600g beef, any cut suited for braising, in 2cm-cubes
- 1 small handfull of bacon cubes or strips
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons dried herbs such as rosemary, thyme and oregano
- about 400g canned chopped tomatoes (now you see where they went)
- a few lugs of red wine
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 20g dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in hot water
- 360g maccheroni or another type of short pasta
- grated parmesan
Heat the olive oil in the pressure cooker and fry the beef cubes in batches until nicely browned. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Fry the onion and bacon for a few minutes, stirring frequently. Add the herbs and fry for another minute. Return the meat to the pan, add the tomatoes and the wine. Bring to a boil, put the lid on and cook for about 1 hour (on the higher setting of your pressure cooker). Then add the porcini mushrooms and simmer uncovered in order for the sauce to thicken a little bit (it will be quite thin as hardly any liquid evaporates in the pressure cooker). Season with pepper and a little salt, depending on how salty your bacon was. Cook the pasta until just al dente, drain and return to the pan. Mix in about 2/3 of the beef stew and put everything into a gratin dish. Top with the rest of the stew and sprinkle generously with grated parmesan. Bake in the preheated oven (200°) until the cheese has melted and forms a brown crust.
Be careful when using a heavily marbled cut of beef, you may want to leave out the bacon or the sauce might become to greasy. However, if you use a lean cut as I did, the bacon will add dephth to the flavour.