Eric Akis: A back-to-basics pasta meal

Eric Akis

Nancy, a Times Colonist reader, asked if could do some columns that offered basic cooking skills and tips using simple ingredients, items you can likely find easily in grocery stores during the current COVID-19 pandemic. She added that many people have more time at home now and they might learn a new skill, find it relaxing and enjoy it.

Unbeknownst to Nancy, I’ve been planning to do just that, starting with today’s recipe. In this dish you’ll be required to make your own meatballs, cook pasta and make cheese sauce before turning them into a tasty casserole.

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When making meatballs, don’t over-mix and/or very vigorously roll them. If you do, the meat will compact and you might end up with tough meatballs when cooked. When rolling meatballs, lightly moisten your hands with cold water first. This creates a barrier between your hands and the meat and prevents the meat from sticking.

One key error some people make when cooking pasta is to not use a generous amount of boiling, salted water. The generous amount of water prevents the pasta from becoming overly starchy and sticking together as it cooks. In the past, it was common to add oil to the pot to prevent this, but it is now thought that oil coats the pasta, preventing the sauce from adhering.

To cook the four cups of rotini I used in today’s recipe, I brought to a boil three litres of water, which had one teaspoon of salt in it to heighten the flavour of pasta. Some suggest using even more salt than that, but when I add pasta to a casserole that already has salty things in it, I find that amount enough.

To make the cheese-flavoured white sauce for the pasta, start by making a roux, a sauce-thickening agent made by combining and cooking flour and butter (or other fat). For white sauce, you cook the roux a short while to get the raw flour taste out of it, but you do not brown and darken it as you would when making gravy for meat, for example.

Warm milk is gradually whisked into the roux, creating a smooth sauce. If you add the milk too quickly, use cold milk or simply don’t whisk fast enough, lumps could form in the sauce.

When the sauce has thickened, remove it from the heat before mixing in the grated cheese. Do not add cheese to the sauce while over the heat, as that can cause the cheese to overcook and start to separate and create an undesired oily surface on the sauce.

Note: In my April 1 column, I’ll offer tips and recipes for making two types of homemade bread.

Cheesy Pasta Casserole with Mini Meatballs

This comfort-food dish sees spiralled pasta baked in a rich cheese sauce with easy to make meatballs. Serve it with a green or Caesar salad.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: about 75 minutes

Makes: four to six servings

For the meatballs

1 lb. (454 grams) lean ground beef

1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs (see Eric’s options)

1/4 cup milk

1 large egg

1/2 tsp salt

• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tsp dried oregano or basil

1 large garlic clove, minced, or 1/8 to 1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/3 cup barbecue sauce, tomato sauce or tomato-based pasta sauce

Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, unless it’s non-stick. Place the beef, breadcrumbs, milk, egg, salt, pepper, oregano (or basil) and garlic in a bowl and mix to combine. Moisten your hands lightly with cold water, then roll scant 1 Tbsp amounts of the beef mixture into small, 3/4 to 1-inch balls and set them on the baking sheet. Roast meatballs 20 minutes. Spoon barbecue sauce (or tomato sauce or pasta sauce) over the meatballs and roll to coat. Set meatballs aside until needed below.

For the pasta casserole

4 cups rotini or other bite-sized pasta

1/4 cup butter, plus some for greasing

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/2 cups warm milk (see Note)

200 grams cheddar cheese (preferably old or extra-old), grated (about 2 1/2 cups)

• salt and white or freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• pinch or 2 smoked or regular paprika

2 Tbsp dried breadcrumbs

• grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

• chopped fresh parsley or thinly sliced green onion, to taste (optional)

Bring a large of pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until just tender (see package for suggested cooking time).

While pasta cooks, melt 1/4 cup butter in a medium-to-large pot set over medium heat (my pot was eight inches wide and six inches tall). Thoroughly mix in flour and cook and stir one to two minutes.

Dribble and whisk in 3/4 cup of the milk. Cook until the mixture is quite thick. Slowly whisk in the remaining milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, so the sauce does not scorch the bottom. Simmer one minute to thicken, and then remove sauce from the heat.

Gradually stir three-quarters of the cheddar cheese into the sauce, mixing until it’s melted and incorporated in the sauce. Season the sauce with salt, pepper and paprika.

Preheat oven to 350 F. When pasta is cooked, drain well, add to the sauce and stir to combine.

Grease a 13- x 9-inch casserole lightly with butter. Set half the meatballs at various points in the casserole.

Top the meatballs with the saucy pasta mixture. Nestle the remaining meatballs on top of the pasta. Sprinkle on the remaining cheddar cheese, breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese.

Bake casserole in the middle of the oven 30 to 35 minutes, or until very hot and bubbling. Sprinkle with parsley or green onion, if using, and serve.

Note: The milk can be warmed to just below a simmer in the microwave or in a pot on the stove set over medium-low heat.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have breadcrumbs, finely crush soda or other crackers and use an equal amount of them in the meatballs and topping for the casserole. To make cheesy pasta casserole with tuna and peas, replace the meatballs with 1 (170 gram) can of well-drained and flaked tuna and 1/2 cup frozen peas. Mix the tuna and peas (do not thaw) into the sauce with the pasta, before spooning into the casserole, topping and baking.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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