Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.

 

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Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone

Food Blog March 2015-0498It would seem that I’m developed a bit of an obsession with well-oiled, aggressively seasoned mushrooms, patiently pan-roasted until deeply, deeply browned and edging toward crisp. Still bouncy on the inside, these golden crusted, meaty little nuggets are finding their way into my cooking more and more frequently. This would be, I think, an entirely good thing in terms of health and waistlines, except I keep drowning them in small mountains of cheese. Last week it was the quintessential quesadilla (which, if you’re wondering, is also stellar in taco format with the addition of tempeh, per my friend S.). This week, a calzone filled with deeply caramelized mushroom quarters, a chunky adaptation of my favorite puttanesca sauce, and of course, the requisite cheese all folded up and pinched inside a swollen half moon of dough.

Food Blog March 2015-0464Food Blog March 2015-0479I love a good calzone, but N. is a little resistant for the same reason he is resistant to lasagna: the not-smooth-enough texture of ricotta cheese. Its strange milky loyalty to both savory and sweet applications is not quite cheese-flavored enough, and the slight graininess of the tiny, tiny residual curds lingering in there weirds him out. Fortunately, in this case as with most cheese-related conflicts, the answer is more. Mashing a healthy dose of grated mozzarella in with the ricotta adds a stronger cheese flavor and ups the salt content, which I think ricotta often needs. Here, I’ve bumped up the flavor and interest even more by folding in a small pile of chopped herbs and some lemon zest. This provided welcomed brightness against the deep earthy mushrooms and puttanesca.

Food Blog March 2015-0471Food Blog March 2015-0476The trick with calzones, as you might expect, is moisture. Because you are sealing up this lovely little packet, it should be baked at a lower temperature than a pizza – the dough tends to be a bit thicker, and because half of it is on the inside, it needs more time to cook all the way through without burning the outside. But what you’ve stacked up inside also has more time to release its own juices, which can result in a bottom crust which is a bit, well, mushy is such an ugly word. Let’s call it soft. Ours certainly was. Calzone dough should be chewy and slightly pillowy but still, there’s a reason it’s called crust.

Food Blog March 2015-0481Food Blog March 2015-0482My thoughts on preventing this are as follows: ensure you are using only the chunky vegetable bits from the puttanesca sauce for the inside. Save the sauce component to spread over the top of the calzone. Additionally, if you have the time, drain the ricotta lump in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Even an hour would allow some of that moisture to escape, which means it would end up in the sink rather than the bottom crust of your dinner.

Food Blog March 2015-0484Food Blog March 2015-0485Food Blog March 2015-0488But even if you do end up with a bottom crust that isn’t as, well, crusty as you might like, you won’t be hurting for flavor. Mushrooms and ricotta – particularly a ricotta jazzed up with mozzarella and aromatics – play incredibly well together, and somehow both hold up to the briny strength of the sauce.
Food Blog March 2015-0492It’s a good dish, then, with which to bid March farewell: still those dark, warm notes of winter, but a lovely springy freshness too, all wrapped up in a chewy, melty package, and just as delicious the next day.

Food Blog March 2015-0499

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone
Serves 6-8
16 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought
8 ounces crimini or button mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of pepper
sprig of thyme (optional)
4 ounces ricotta cheese, drained if desired
8 ounces (1 cup) low moisture mozzarella cheese, grated and divided
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
For sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers, minced
¼ cup coarsely chopped kalamata olives
2 anchovy fillets
pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ cup dry red wine
8-10 ounces diced canned tomatoes, with their juice
  • On an oiled pizza pan, spread out the pizza dough in a rough circle 12 inches in diameter. If it springs back, no worries; let it rest for ten minutes and then stretch it out again. At least half an hour before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F with a rack in the middle position.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, the pinch of pepper, and the thyme sprig if desired and cook until the mushrooms are well-browned. This should take 8-10 minutes with occasional stirring, during which time the mushrooms will suck up the oil, release their liquid, and then accept some of that liquid back again.
  • While the mushrooms cook, combine the ricotta and ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese in a small bowl with the fresh parsley, fresh basil, lemon zest, and pinch of salt to taste. I find a rubber spatula works well for this. Reserve the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella for the top of the calzone.
  • When the mushrooms are done, set them aside in a small bowl and discard the thyme sprig, then put the skillet back over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the minced garlic. Saute for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is soft and aromatic and edging toward golden. Add the anchovy fillets and mash them around with a wooden spoon to break down. Scrape in the capers and olives and saute for an additional 1 minute.
  • Toss in the red pepper flakes, the basil, and the ½ cup of red wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomatoes with their juice and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit and the flavors are well combined. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
  • To assemble, spread the cheese mixture over half of the stretched dough, leaving a healthy inch margin around the edge. Pile the mushrooms on top of the cheese, and then use a slotted spoon to add the chunky portions of the sauce – the tomato and olive and caper bits – on top of the mushrooms (again, keep and respect that inch margin).
  • With slightly moistened or lightly oiled hands (especially if your dough is sticky), grab the edge opposite the area you’ve been filling and pull up, folding over to meet the half-circle edge along your margin. You’ll form a half-moon shape with the dough. Crimp the edge by pulling the bottom layer of dough up slightly over the top layer in a series of small segments. Press and pinch each one tightly into the top layer of dough about a half inch from the edge. This will form a seal to prohibit the top from opening up during baking. It also looks pretty. Because we care about that.
  • With the calzone fully sealed along the circular edge, brush the top with some of the remaining puttanesca sauce, then sprinkle on the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella cheese. Carefully place into the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cheese on top is melted and crusty, and the dough is golden and cooked through. After removing from the oven, wait 5-10 minutes before slicing, then serve hot with any remaining puttanesca sauce, if desired.