Monday, January 18, 2010

baked pasta and boiler woes

I woke up to perfect silence on Thursday morning.

As a premature curmudgeon who tends to think that the world is too loud, I'm usually grateful for moments of quiet. Perfect silence is a rare and precious commodity. I would have been delighted to lie in bed and savor it, were it not for one tiny detail: perfect silence in my apartment is a sign that the heat isn't working.

I live in an old building, and my apartment is heated by an old-fashioned, cast-iron steam radiator. Though it's a highly effective producer of heat, it also generates a steady stream of gurgling, clanking, and whistling noises. The radiator is only ever quiet when it's off, and I knew it was very much on when I went to bed Wednesday night. Putting a hand out from beneath the covers confirmed my suspicions: the radiator was cold to the touch. Judging by the chilly air in the room, it had been off for several hours.

The radiators are powered by a boiler in the basement, which also happens to be the building's hot water heater. If the heat is out, chances are high that there's no hot water either. And while sponge baths don't faze me, I know from painful experience that it is an absolute nuisance to have to wash dishes by heating water on the stove.

Suffice to say, I was very reluctant to get out of bed. I dragged myself out from beneath the covers only because the second week of the semester is too soon to start skipping class, even for me. I dressed in extra layers, but between the lack of heat and the wait in freezing wind for the T, I was feeling chilled to the bone by the time I got to school.

The classroom, while not unpleasant, was hardly toasty. Coffee helped slightly, but I still didn't want to take off my coat. I spent the entirety of Antitrust class thinking about soup and stew and polenta and other warm, comforting dishes instead of paying attention to the professor's lecture on perfect monopolies.

Thankfully, upon returning home after class, I was greeted by warm air and the radiator's familiar gurgle and clank. Maintenance had fixed the boiler. One hot shower later, I had thawed out, and I felt free to make comfort food without worrying about the logistics of cleanup.

I decided on baked pasta, because the only thing better than plain pasta with lots of melted cheese (one of my favorite comfort foods) is pasta with lots of melted cheese and crispy, crusty edges.

I have two rules when I prepare baked pasta: 1. It's all about the pasta and cheese. 2. Not too much sauce.

This means no strange additions - this is not an anchovy-appropriate pasta dish, for example. It also means cooking up a sauce that is thick, but not heavy.

A mixture of pureed onion and tomato paste may sound peculiar, but it produces a sauce that clings nicely to the pasta without pooling in the bottom of the dish. The onions mellow after simmering, and the tomato paste adds an appealing umami-sweet element.

The finished dish is deceptively moreish. If you're anything like me, you'll be picking at the leftovers when cleaning up, possibly going after the leftovers in the fridge after midnight, and then wondering two days later if it isn't too soon to make it again.

I'm certain it'll make a reappearance before the winter is out. Hopefully, the same cannot be said of my building's boiler woes.

Baked Pasta with Oniony Tomato Sauce

You can use Italian sausage in the sauce, but it's an entirely optional extra.

(Serves one, provided you like leftover baked pasta. Particularly if you like it cold from the fridge for breakfast.)

Take two white onions, cut them up roughly, and blitz in a food processor until you have onion puree. Set aside.

Set a big pot on the stove (large enough to hold both sauce and a half a pound of pasta.) Melt a tablespoon of butter over low heat, and add the onion puree.

(If you're making this pasta with sausage, omit the butter. Take an Italian sausage, remove the casing, and cook over low heat until meat is nicely browned, then add the onion puree.)

Cook, stirring well, until the onions are no longer giving off fumes. Add a can of tomato paste, and stir it in. Add a little water, and keep the sauce at a low simmer.

Bring a big pot of salted water to a rolling boil, and throw in half a pound of penne, ziti, rigatoni, or other short pasta. Cook until the pasta is just a little harder than you want the finished result to be - that is, cook it to al dente if you'd like the baked pasta to be very soft, and cook it until it's still a little raw and floury-tasting if you'd like the baked pasta al dente. Drain (do not rinse); set aside.

Simmer the sauce for another ten to fifteen minutes; add salt to taste. (Go lightly. You'll be adding cheese.) Turn off the heat; add the drained pasta and mix well.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Take a glass or metal baking dish and lightly grease with a little oil or butter. Add the sauced pasta. Cover with one to one-and-a-half cups of grated cheese, exact variety up to you. (I used a mixture of Comte and mild cheddar, because it was what I had on hand.)

Transfer the baking dish to the oven. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until cheese is melted and develops crusty bits.

Remove from oven; allow to cool for five to ten minutes before serving.

Note: If you prefer your pasta heavier on the sauce, use a mixture of tomato paste and crushed or pureed tomatoes.


just jenn said...

umm. i'm not sure if i should comment or simply run to the kitchen. this sounds like heaven in a pan and i have all the ingredients shouting my name. thanks for sharing and i sure hope your heater woes do not re-occur this winter.

adele said...

just jenn - Well, I appreciate your taking the time to comment en route to your run. :)

I really do object more to not having hot water more than I object to not having heat. My place is small enough that having the oven on will heat it!

Virgin In The Volcano said...

This is one of my favorites too. A quick and guilty pleasure.

Joh said...

Adele, this sounds delicious. I think I'm making this next time that we're running low on supplies and in need of something comfy. And I'm very glad to hear your heat is fixed. :)

adele said...

Virgin - On my worst days, I may or may not use equal parts pasta and cheese.

Joh - It's a great should-have-gone-shopping-two-days-ago dish. :)

Bitsy said...

"plain pasta with lots of melted cheese (one of my favorite comfort foods) is pasta with lots of melted cheese and crispy, crusty edges."

I'm sure that baking pasta until it has crispy bits it is one of the worst things one can do to perfectly decent pasta sort of all out burning it or slathering it in Vegemite. But lot of people seem to insist on doing it.

adele said...

Bitsy - Fair enough. As long as you prefer the soft middle pieces, that means more crusty edge bits for me. :P

Cakelaw said...

Yummo! This sounds amazing. I am gald that I don't have to deal with extreme cold - I am not built for it.

adele said...

Cakelaw - I have to say, when I leave New England, I will not be sorry to bid its winters goodbye.

Juliet said...

I am stuffed, but you've managed to make me hungry!

I've just added you into my bLAWg roll. If I gain weight in the coming weeks, I'll know who to blame. ;)

adele said...

Juliet - The trick might be to make up a pan of this, invite friends over, and insist that they take all the leftovers so that you don't pick at them later. :P

Lindsey@pickyeatings said...

a) I hate when the heat goes out, in my last place our landlord would randomly turn our boiler off, even though we paid for heat.

b) I love the word moreish, and I'm excited you used it in your post.

c) I have to try this, I have never made a proper baked pasta dish, aside from mac and cheese and lasagna.

~~louise~~ said...

Oh I know those sounds well, Adele. When those radiators poured heat they were very very good, when they didn't, they were horrid!!!

Truth be told, I used the heat from them to create my very first home made candles. They were so hot they would melt wax!!! I'm not kidding, I had metal coffee cans lined up on them. When the wax melted, I poured and poured...(I haven't thought of that in ages:)

Now for that baked pasta of yours. YUM!!! Double YUM!!!

I love crispy baked pasta with lots of cheese and no "fancy" trimmings. It is my all time beat the no heat winter blues favorite!!! Stay warm and enjoy:)

adele said...

Lindsey - It's easy. Easier than mac and cheese (no white sauce), and easier than lasagne, too. :)

Louise - I use mine for melting chocolate!

MissNeira said...

I love finding new ways to cook pasta (it gets boring after awhile, and my boyfriend is the real cook!) but I agree with the more cheese less sauce, cheese on everything! ha!

adele said...

MissNeira - *nod* Cheese makes the world a better place.