Cook the Books Club - baked pasta inspired by Stir
Friday, 27 Jan 2017

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I had originally intended to go to a real-live cookbook club, one that involved people, cooking, eating food, taking the tube -but when we found out our cat had cancer I didn’t want to stray far away from her for extended periods of time, and even now she’s not with us anymore I mainly, primarily, want to stay home and nest. I did however nurse a desire for cooking inspiration preferably via cookbook clubbing, and so found one on the internet, as one does.

This month’s Cook the Books book is Stir by Jessica Fechtor which feels oddly apt - almost like serendipity, but sadder. It’s about the writer’s experience with a brain aneurysm, and is not so much a cookbook as it is a book about food, and our relationships and memories with food and the people we love. My saddest recent cat-based moment wasn’t taking down her tower or putting away her toys, but collecting her snacks and tins of food to be donated to the pet food bank. I like food and feeding people, and cats too.

The food I chose to cook is a baked pasta, inspired by the baked ziti in the book but the recipe is my own. I like my pasta bake a little spicy, and here that bit of heat comes from the harissa paste and chilli flakes. I use the squeezy tube Harissa Du Cap Bon as it’s easy to keep in the fridge and Aleppo chilli flakes. I get the harissa from an Algerian butchers in Finsbury Park and the Aleppo chilli flakes from Turkish grocery shops on Green Lanes. Over in North West London, Phoenicia in Kentish Town is a great place to get all your Middle-Eastern and North African supplies.

baked pasta on stove

It’s a very easy recipe, bechamel free, and I’ve made various incarnations of it over the years: with cumin, chilli powder and jalapenos for ‘Mexican’ baked pasta; with cheddar; with kale; with meat; with different types of pasta. I’m fond of novelty pasta shapes and I often have a few different ones at a time. My favourites are the UFO shaped dischi volanti and animal shapes (and I’m especially fond of the tri-colour ones). Ziti or penne seems to be the traditional pasta shape here but I prefer shells, which, along with macaroni, is what my mother has always used. I also find that the sauce collects nicely inside it. To be perfectly frank, this recipe is carb on carb with two types of cheese and would not in any way fall under the purview of the clean-eating brigade, but I think there is a time for this type of food in our lives.

baked pasta

Ingredients
  • 200g dry pasta
  • grated parmesan
  • grated mozzarella
  • 2 slices stale white bread
  • 2 cans chopped tomatoes
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 peppers
  • 1 tbsp harissa
  • dried herbs
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • dried chilli flakes
Method

First roast the garlic, this will take about 30 minutes. Turn on the oven to 200 deg C. Remove the outer layer of papery garlic skin and set aside 3 cloves. Slice off the top of the rest of the intact head, exposing the raw garlic nubs inside. Place on a piece of foil, drizzle with olive oil and wrap the head in the foil package. Stick in the oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the garlic from the foil when done and set aside to cool for a bit. Turn temperature down to 175 deg C.

Rip up the stale white bread, put it in the foil and drizzle with more olive oil. Scrunch it all up a little with your hands and stick it in the oven. This is for breadcrumbs. Bake until brown and toasted.

Simultaneously boil some water for the pasta.

Now mince the 3 garlic cloves you set aside earlier. Cut the peppers into strips.

I chop things slow, and faffed about the kitchen looking for ingredients, chilli flakes and things. I rarely do the whole mise-en-scene thing, also primarily due to a lack of counter space. At this point my water was boiling and I added my pasta to the pot. I boiled the pasta for 10 minutes. I mention this because it's not gonna take more than 10 minutes for the sauce to come together.

Heat some oil in an oven-friendly pan. I used my Dutch oven.

First saute the peppers until they're softened and not raw. Add the garlic and saute. Just before the garlic turns golden, add the 1 tbsp of harissa and chilli flakes.

Add the chopped tomatoes and squish the roasted garlic out of their little pods. Smoosh it all together with a pinch of dried herbs, some salt and black pepper, and cook down to a thick sauce.

Drain the pasta, add to the sauce. Turn off the stove.

Sprinkle some grated mozzarella on the top followed by the golden toasted shards of bread, then grated parmesan, then more mozzarella.

Bake for 30 minutes.


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