December 13, 2010

Baked Rigatoni with Mini Meatballs

I know I'm still in finals mode because I forgot my camera back at school; good one Katie. And of course I forget it when I make the most beautiful, picturesque, perfectly swirled brownies and the gooeyest, cheesiest, and most delectable baked pasta dish ever. Seriously, I need to be done with school for the semester, this little wahoo needs a break.

I'm not exaggerating though in my description of this dish; it was absolutely fantastic. The mini meatballs have the most exquisite and defined flavor from the frying. Bechamel once again stands up to its high standards as one of my favorite sauce. And who doesn't love a dish oozing with fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheese? That's right, personne n'aime pas (nobody! I had to throw in some of my French skills from 1020...only a few more semesters from hopefully being almost fluent, it's one of my college goals). So do your heart and soul some good with the ultimate comfort dish, you won't regret it.

Baked Rigatoni with Mini Meatballs
Slightly modified from Smitten Kitchen

Mini Meatballs
1/4 cup milk
2 small slices of white bread, crust removed
1 pound ground beef*
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon dried parsley (or fresh if you have, but up the amount to 2 tbs.)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all purpose flour
olive oil, for frying

4 1/2 cups milk**
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Finishing touches
1 pound rigatoni, cooked al dente
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan + additional for topping
1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1/3 cup milk

*For meatballs or any meat sauce, I usually use a mixture of ground beef and ground veal which really gives the dish a well-rounded bold taste. Also, the ground beef my mom buys is this amazing organic ground beef, you can really taste the difference!

**Don't use skim milk!! This won't allow you to achieve the full bodied bèchamel that you want in a dish like this. Whole milk, or even 2% is preferable, but if all you have is skim milk you can even it you with half&half or heavy cream in a 3 1/2:1 milk to cream ratio.

Make the mini meatballs:
In a shallow dish or plate, soak the crustless bread in the milk for 3-5 minutes. After soaking, squeeze out the excess milk and place in a larger mixing bowl. Add the ground beef, garlic, parsley, cheese, egg, salt and pepper. Gently combine the ingredients mixing with your hands, the best tool in the kitchen might I add, until they are evenly mixed and distributed.

Pinch off small lumps of the meatball mixture, forming balls of a size slightly larger than grapes by rolling the mixture between your palms. When all the meatballs have been formed, roll them in flour to attain a nice coat for frying.

Heat up a skillet with enough olive oil to evenly cover the bottom of the pan (I used a non-stick, they work miracles). When the oil is hot, place 15-20 meatballs, or however many you can fit in your specific skillet so that they all have enough room to move around and be happy. Brown them until they have formed a nice crust, remove, and then place on a paper towel lined plate to drain the excess grease. If you have a splash guard, a mesh cover for a frying pan, this is the perfect opportunity to use it to prevent a greasy stove top!

Make the bèchamel:
Heat the milk in a small saucepan until just warm, not allowing it to boil. In a large saucepan melt the butter over low heat, and upon melting whisk in the flour until just combined- the mixture will be very thick. Add small increments of the milk a little at a time, keeping the consistency thick until all the milk has been added and you are left with a thick, creamy, and smooth sauce. Stir in nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Finishing touches:
Pre-heat the oven to 400F and grease a 9x13 baking dish. After the rigatoni has reached al dente, drain, and return to the cooking pot. Add in the bechamel, mozzarella, mini meatballs, Parmesan cheese, and gently stir with a spatula until evenly distributed. Pour into the prepared baking dish and drizzle over the remaining 1/3 cup milk. Finish the dish off with some more freshly grated Parmesan on top. Cover with foil, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil, and cook for another 5 minutes or until the top is slightly browned, bubbly and oozing with delicious-ness.

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