In 2003 as part of a Slow Food Dominican convivium I attended an international conference in Naples, Italy. My husband and I decided to part with the rest of the delegation and spend a few weeks exploring Italy.
This trip was without doubts one of the highlights of my life. The “why” is self-evident.
Armed with a crummy 3mp digital camera (second generation!), the one I used at the time for taking pictures for our site, and an appetite for knowledge and good food, we stocked on maps, lots of patience, and the humility with which the neophyte approaches Italian food. We stayed in small hotels and travelled by train, and I marveled at my husband’s incredible capacity to find his way round in any city. We bought from vendors peddling their fake Guccis and Dolce and Gabbanas and visited a flea market in Rome where we bought things that I’m not really sure where they are now.
We chased the locals into popular eateries where the staff didn’t speak a word of English, and I had to fend for myself with the then-rusty Italian learned when I was a teenager. We ate gelatto in small parlors tucked away in dodgy, out of the way alleys. We walked an hour from our hotel in Milan to find a pizza place that the hotel staff had highly recommended. We had coffee after coffee, and I’m sure we broke as many rules as the Italians follow when it comes to choosing what coffee for what occasion. I ate so much cheese that… OK, I’ll spare you that.
One thing I learned from that trip was that Italians take food seriously. Very seriously. And they are proud of their culinary heritage, and will take any opportunity to inform you of it in no uncertain terms. One cannot help but detect a hint (?) of bragging, and cannot but accept that they have ample reason to. After all, is there any country whose cuisine has spread far and wide like Italy’s? Is there any other, with the possible exception of France, that epitomizes haute cuisine - or, more accurately alta cuccina – like Italy?
I can understand why perhaps they are not completely ecstatic about what passes for Italian food in many a place, and the sins perpetrated against pasta everywhere. And while I feel a measure of sympathy, the truth is that once you release the monster there is no chaining it back. Sorry amici, ain’t gonna stop loving my pastelón de espagueti, you’ll have to scusi me.
Though not the most common casserole, this is an old family tradition of mine. This delicious dish can be served as a side dish to your favorite grilled fish or meat, and it is perfect for potlucks.
The only change I have made to the family recipe is the addition of basil, one of my favorite herbs and that complements this dish very well.
A whole meal in itself and a very delicious dish, I remember Pastelón de spaghetti (Spaghetti Casserole) from many a childhood Sunday meal.
- 1/2 lb of spaghetti or pasta of your choice
- 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 cups of tomato sauce
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 12 very ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 green pepper diced into very small cubes
- 1 pinch of oregano
- 1 tablespoon of basil finely chopped
- 1/2 cup of pitted olives, cut into slices
- 1/2 cup of capers
- 1 cup of cream (or evaporated milk)
- Basil for decoration
- Oil a bread loaf pan using a teaspoon of oil.
- Boil the pasta al dente.
- In a heavy saucepan heat the remaining oil over low heat.
- Sautee the tomatoes, oregano, chopped basil, garlic until the tomatoes are tender.
- Add half a cup of water and the tomato sauce.
- Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes. Reserve half of the tomato sauce for serving.
- Mix in capers and olives with the tomato sauce.
- Add the cream or milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the spaghetti to the tomato and cream sauce and mix well.
- Place some basil leaves at the bottom of the baking pan.
- Pour in the pasta without disturbing the basil leaves.
- Lightly press with a fork to compact.
- Pre-heat up oven to 300 °F (150 °C).
- Bake covered with aluminum foil for 20 minutes.
- Cool down for 5 minutes before removing from the pan.
- Garnish with the tomato sauce you had reserved and sprinkle with cheese. Serve with green salad.
You can use short pasta too for this one, macaroni is especially good as it retains the sauce better and makes for a moister casserole.
For a vegan version use soy milk (or similar substitute) instead of cow milk.