Last night, I made a big pan of Manicotti – a simple meal of cheese-stuffed pasta tubes baked in sauce. When making a classic, you don’t want to get too creative, but I used some pasta sauce I had made earlier, festooned with olives and capers, and doused with some marsala to add depth. I mixed in some garlic and herb cheese with the ricotta and mozzarella for the filling and the St. Louisan in me made me top it with a blend of provel and parmesan. Good, traditional pasta – a filling meal on a cold night.
The very traditionalism of the meal made me think about how rarely I eat pasta in what for me is the old way – pasta covered with sauce, accented by maybe a meatball or a bit of sausage. Instead, pasta has grown into an ingredient in my cooking – an element to be balanced instead of a delivery mechanism for something else.
For example, one of my favorite quick meals lately is to swing by the grocery store on the way home and pick up a roasted chicken and some mixed olives from a cart. At home, I pull the meat from the chicken, cut it into bite-size pieces chunks, and boil up some pasta (anything from fettucini to radiatore – whatever shape you have and enjoy). I chop up the olives, add some pepperoncini slices and capers, definitely some garlic, and heat that for just a few minutes in a covered skillet, tossing in the olive, caper and pepperoncini juice. When the pasta is almost but not quite done, I drain it and add it to the skillet, with a good dousing of white wine and the chunks of chicken. I let it steam in the flavor rather than swim in boiling water for its last few minutes.
No alfredo or tomato sauce – though, the last time I made it, I added a few dollops of my wife’s awesome home-made pesto. As opposed to the way pasta got treated in my earlier ventures, the pasta plays a real role in the flavor of the dish, and not just something to dump sauce on.
But if someone wants to put a plate of good old manicotti or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs in front of me, I’ll show my respect for the old ways . . .