So I’m trying something new today, just to mix it up a little. Guest blogger! Yeehaw! In this case, my good friend Brian who has recently begun the sometimes humbling, but often rewarding journey that is experimental home cooking, AKA “Yum what is this it’s delicious?” “I dunno some shit I just made up” Enjoy!
Before things get too crazy, I believe introductions are in order. I’m a 30-something guy living in Baltimore who started cooking for real mainly to impress girls. (Fellas – remember not to set the bar too high on the first meal!) The neighborhood I live in has only one small grocery store within easy walking distance and I don’t own a car. Plus, I’m pretty lazy. Consequently, I often have to make do with a painfully limited selection of items for my culinary adventures. On the plus side, this lack of choice forces a bit of creativity to stave off boredom and/or full blown Five Guys addiction. By no means do I think of myself a master chef, I routinely “discover” basic herbs like they were the dead sea scrolls and use them with reckless abandon for weeks at a time, but I’ve made some things that I am pretty proud of, and I am always learning. Of course, I would like to use nothing but the freshest and highest quality ingredients, but due to the aforementioned lack of options and laziness, plus an occasional bout of penny-pinching, I sometimes cut a corner or two.
Henry has graciously allowed me to post chronicles of my triumphs and failures in the kitchen. I would have liked to present these feats as normal recipes with a nice bulleted list of ingredients and such, but unfortunately, I am terrible with measurements because I never use them. I season and cook by eye and by feel, so any attempt by me to assign units of measurement to anything that I’ve made would most likely end up in disaster. Also, I usually drink when I cook, so I can never remember exactly how much of what I put into any given dish. Every meal is an adventure!
One day at work, where these things usually happen, I decided out of the blue that I was going to attempt some sort of pasta bake with my brand new Pyrex baking dish. I did a little research online to get the general idea of the standard cooking times, techniques, ingredients, etc., and stopped by the store on my way home.
Foolishly eschewing a list, and thereby almost certainly guaranteeing that I would forget something important, I gathered my ingredients with well-honed market-ninja skills. In no particular order, I picked up a medium yellow onion, a large green pepper, garlic, a large can of crushed tomatoes, sausage, and cheese. The idea had previously occurred to me to put one layer of sausage and one layer of pepperoni in the pasta bake, but all such thoughts were washed away when I saw the package of prosciutto ham glowing among its lesser deli meat brethren. That’s right, shit was about to get fancy! Everything else I needed I already had at home.
After some liquid courage to get me through this daunting new cooking challenge, I prepped everything that needed chopping, preheated the oven to 350 degrees, set a large skillet to medium heat, and put a pot of salted water on to boil.
First step was to brown up the sausage in the skillet. My local Italian sausage options are limited, so I ended up using a classic orange tube of Eskay pork sausage. I picked up the hot variety, partially because I always like a little kick, but mostly because I am always working to covertly build up my girlfriend’s tolerance for spicy foods. When the sausage was just browned, out went the fat into the special “sausage/bacon grease that I’ll probably never use for anything because there are little sausage bits in it and that is gross” coffee can that I keep in the fridge.
Next to join the sausage in the pan was the can of crushed tomatoes, about half a cup of olive oil, five or so cloves of minced garlic, the whole diced onion, half the diced green pepper, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning (oregano and thyme), sugar (just a shake), and red pepper flakes (amount depending on desired spiciness level). I let this simmer at medium heat, occasionally stirring and tasting, and adding more of this or that as necessary while I prepared the pasta.
I used whatever pasta I had at home, which happened to be egg noodles and thin spaghetti. It was kind of a weird combination for something like this, but they did the job. While the sauce and meat mixture simmered, I cooked the noodles per the instructions. The spaghetti took a little longer for al dente so it went in first.
When the pasta was ready, the tomato and sausage mixture had been simmering for about 20 minutes. Ideally, I would have liked to let it cook out for much longer, like I would if I was making spaghetti sauce, but I was getting pretty goddam hungry. I spread the cooked pasta on the bottom of the baking dish as the first layer. In retrospect, I should have mixed the pasta and sauce mix together before adding both to the pan. Instead, I added the sauce mix over the noodle layer. Unfortunately, this created patches of dried up noodles on the bottom where the sauce didn’t settle through during baking.
With the base layers down, next came a layer of cheese. I used the Sargento Italian Cheese Blend, which consists of shredded mozzarella, provolone, asiago, romano, fontina, and parmesan. It took almost the whole package to cover the entire dish.
Next up: the big guns! I can’t attest to the quality of the prosciutto brand that I used because I am far from a connoisseur, but I thought it was quite tasty. The lovely strips of meat went on top of the cheese layer as shown below.
Finally, I covered the prosciutto with the rest of the cheese and a sprinkling of Italian-style bread crumbs, just because it seemed like the right thing to do.
To cover or not to cover? I couldn’t find a majority consensus online. This quickly proved to be a moot point because I discovered that my list-snubbing ways had caused me to forget the aluminum foil. The matter settled, I popped the whole thing into the over for about 20 minutes. When it was ready, the top was nicely brown and the cheese was bubbling.
The results? Not too shabby! I was pretty happy with how it turned out, and there were no complaints from the little lady. Good thing, because I made enough to live on for a week. Thanks to my lack of foil, I had to cram the leftovers into multiple square Gladware containers.
How it could have been better: I thought the sauce was a little bland. This I attribute to the short cooking time before I added it to the bake. Also, I would have liked the sauce to be a little saucier, I may need to add more liquid next time. Finally, more meat! That tube of sausage was stretched a little thin when spread around the whole dish. Maybe that additional layer of pepperoni shouldn’t have been omitted after all….
I definitely considered this dish a success for a first try. Next time, allotting more time for the sauce, adding a bit more substance, and using a more traditional pasta should really smooth out the rough edges. Any comments or suggestions are welcome.