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 up 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 espaguetis, 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.
Pastelón de Espaguetis Recipe (Spaghetti Casserole)
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1/2 lb [0.23 kg] of spaghetti or short pasta of your choice
- 2 teaspoons of salt (or more, to taste), divided
- 12 very ripe tomatoes , peeled and diced
- 1 pinch of oregano
- 3 tablespoons of basil finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves , crushed
- 1 bell pepper diced into very small cubes
- 1/2 cup of water
- 2 cups of tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup of capers
- 1/2 cup of pitted olives , cut into slices
- 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon of pepper (or more, to taste)
- A few basil leaves for decoration
- 1/2 cup of grated Mozzarella cheese
- Oil a bread loaf pan using a teaspoon of oil.
- Boil the pasta al dente, adding a teaspoon of salt to the water.
- In a heavy saucepan heat the remaining oil over low heat.
- Cook and stir the tomatoes, oregano, chopped basil, garlic and bell peppers over low heat until the tomatoes are tender.
- Add water and 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 parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the spaghetti to the tomato sauce and mix well.
- Pour in the pasta into a 6" [15 cm] non-stick mold. Lightly press with a fork to compact. Cover with the mozzarella.
- Heat 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 basil and the tomato sauce you had reserved. Serve with green salad.