Pasta has become a classic American staple. It’s origin maybe Italian but in the past 50 years, it’s become one of the go-to easy dinners that many families enjoy at least once a week. My grandmother didn’t have many pasta recipes. The few that she had remained part of her unpublished recipe set that she developed later in her career. The trendiest dishes of the 1960’s, when her cookbooks were written, were of mostly of French origin. The pasta explosion came later. Even so, it’s become so common that there are many pasta dishes that can now be considered classics. These include dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, mac and cheese, lasagna, and some cases chicken parmesan (or parmigiana). In most Italian red-sauce restaurants, the chicken is really the focus of this dish and pasta is really a side, if included at all. I’ve always preferred a more equal balance of protein and pasta. And although I enjoy a good chicken parm, I am also a seafood lover and found this deconstructed shrimp parmesan to be the perfect lighter alternative to the original red-sauce classic.
Macaroni and Cheese is an American classic. It’s practically a staple in our diets, or at least the boxed version was while growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. When craving the favorite cheese drenched pasta, how do you decide which one to make? From baked and boxed to fancier truffle and healthier spinach versions – there’s a variation to match any specific craving. I keep it simple: if I’m craving comforting mac and cheese and willing to consume large amounts of this caloric delight for dinner, I want the real deal. Extra cheesy baked macaroni and cheese with a lightly crunchy top – no funny business.
This mac and cheese recipe is not from my grandmother’s books or any of her colleagues, it’s a creation of my own. As I expand this blog to include other classic recipes besides those of my grandmothers, classic baked mac and cheese was a obvious necessity. My grandmother had very few pasta recipes – I’m not sure if this was due to the time period (1960’s), or if it was just a category she was still in the process of mastering. Either way, there are some great classic pasta recipes out there, such as mac and cheese, that I felt should be included here.
Until recently, I’ve made very few lasagnas in my life. It always seems like a long process for an average, everyday pasta dish that appears on the menu at almost every red-sauce Italian restaurant. But this lasagna has changed my mind. I give credit to the absence of one of the most common ingredients in lasagna: ricotta cheese. I don’t have a particular problem with ricotta. The crumbly, almost grainy like texture doesn’t bother me like it does some people. I even thought I liked it in lasagna but that was before I tried replacing the ricotta with a basic béchamel sauce. The simple French sauce made of butter, flour, and milk (or cream) is often used as the base for many other sauces (like the cheesy sauce in baked mac & cheese). In this lasagna, the béchamel sauce adds an unexpected smooth creaminess to the dish without making it overwhelmingly rich.
This lovely classic was adapted from John Clancy’s Cookbook, “John Clancy’s Favorite Recipes.” Another talented friend of my grandmother, John Clancy was a chef and restaurateur who like my grandmother, was mentored by James Beard. He later opened his own culinary school and authored a number of cookbooks. Although he was known for his fish and seafood recipes (and baking recipes in his inner circle), this lasagna recipe is exceptionally tasty. I did, however; make some modifications. The original recipe instructions state to cook the tomato sauce for 4 hours. Who has that kind of time?! I’m sure it might make a more flavorful sauce but a tasty one can be made in under 30 minutes and then allowed to simmer while the pasta and béchamel are prepared. Instead of a combination of ground veal, pork, and beef – which I’m sure is delicious – I decided to keep it simple by just using beef (ground turkey could also be used). And lastly, I added cheese! A sprinkle of parmesan on top was just not enough so I added both grated parmesan and mozzarella between each layer. Ricotta lover or not, this classic lasagna will quickly become your favorite and replace that tomato sauce-drenched version from the local mediocre Italian restaurant.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 cup finely chopped onion
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 – 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 cup fresh basil, shredded or chopped (or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried)
salt and pepper
3 cups light cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 lb lasagna noodles
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 lb shredded mozzarella (or one 8 ounce package)
For the meat sauce:
In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil until it is very hot. Add ground beef and brown, breaking up meat with a fork or spatula. Drain fat. Stir in onion and garlic and saute until translucent. Season with salt and pepper. Add tomato paste and cook a minute longer. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, dried basil (if using fresh, wait to add until right before building lasagna), and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Continue to simmer while preparing the bechamel and lasagna noodles.
Heat the water for the lasagna noodles and cook according to package instructions while preparing the bechamel. A tablespoon of oil can be added to the water to help prevent the noodles from sticking. Cook until just slightly resilient to the bite.
For the bechamel sauce:
Place the light cream in a small saucepan. Heat cream until hot and set aside.
Melt the butter in a heavy 1 quart saucepan, add the flour, and stir until smooth. Whisk in hot cream and place the saucepan over high heat, bringing the sauce to a boil and whisking constantly. When the sauce is very thick, lower the heat and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Remove from heat and set aside.
To assemble lasagna:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread a thin layer of the meat sauce on the bottom of a 9 x 12 x 3 inch casserole. Spread about 1/4 of the bechamel sauce on top. Add a 1/4 of the Parmesan and mozzarella. Add a layer of pasta on top. Repeat layering three more times, ending with meat sauce bechamel and cheese.
Bake in a preheated oven until lasagna is bubbling hot, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.
Adapted from “John Clancy’s Favorite Recipes,” by John Clancy.
My on-going quest to conquer bland mayo-based picnic salads has now lead me to macaroni salad. Not only is this curried version packed with healthy farm-fresh vegetables and savory flavors, it’s barely recognizable as that drab slop we call macaroni salad, usually doused in mayo. This is a good thing. If you are a mayo lover, you can always add a bit more mayo for that saucy texture but as it stands, the curry powder combined with the parsley and scallions makes this simple pasta salad unexpectedly flavorful.
Like most others in my possession, this Curried Macaroni Salad recipe was written 50 years ago. It seems surprisingly innovative – curry powder, chutney, and multiple fresh vegetables don’t sound like they belong in a macaroni salad born in the 1960’s. But that creativity has proven to be one of my grandmother’s legacies. Just recently, one of her good friends recalled my grandmother’s love of Indian food (she loved all types of international foods). This is one of a few recipes in “The Art of Good Cooking” that contains curry powder or some sort of ingredient that we often associate with Indian food. And just like the others, the amount of curry powder (or spices used) must be adjusted because apparently they were much weaker in those days (2 tablespoons per pound of pasta!).
The last addition I would like to call your attention to is the chutney or relish. I’m not 100% sure what she referred to as chutney in those days or how many different kinds there were but I’m sure it was nothing like the variety we have now. I love the addition of chutney but be careful when choosing what type to use. That spicy red pickled mango chutney might not be the best option but a green cilantro chutney is delicious (reduce from ½ cup to just a few tablespoons though). Plain relish also works well but it’s not as exciting or perhaps “international” as my grandmother may have intended.
This recipe can be easily halved.
1 lb elbow macaroni, cooked in boiling salted water until tender, then drained
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/8 cup wine vinegar
1 cup thinly sliced radishes
1 small green pepper, diced
3/4 cup thinly sliced, peeled, seeded cucumber
1 cup chopped scallions
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1 cup chopped parsley
2/3 cup finely sliced carrots
1/2 cup sweet relish or chutney
salt and pepper
Rinse macaroni in hot water and keep warm.
Combine mayonnaise, curry powder and wine vinegar in a small bowl, and pour over warm macaroni. Add remaining ingredients; toss gently. Allow to come to room temperature.
Note: Bits of tuna fish or smoked meat may be added to this dish to make it more substantial.
Adapted from “The Art of Good Cooking,” by Paula Peck.
If you’re a clam lover, this dish will make your mouth water. A new England classic and a combination of three different unpublished recipes by my grandmother, Paula Peck: veloute, linguine in white clam sauce, and white wine sauce. I’ve combined them into one easier to follow recipe minus the heavy cream. A hodge-podge that becomes a garlicky semi-creamy sauce with a tang of sweet and sour citrus clam flavor. Exactly what you want in a white clam sauce.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups stock (fish or chicken)
2 shallots, chopped
1 1/2 cups white wine
¾ cup milk
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
16-18 cherrystone clams, scrubbed
1lb cooked linguine
½ cup chopped parsley
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Stir in flour, using a wire whisk. Slowly whisk in 1 ½ cups stock. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer.
Combine shallot, remaining stock, and white wine in a large skillet over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Add milk and lemon juice. Heat through. Whisk white wine sauce into butter flour stock mixture. Season sauce with salt and pepper.
In the same large skillet, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic. Saute for 1 minute. Add sauce and clams. Simmer until clams open. Stir in cooked linguine and chopped parsley. Serve immediately with grated Parmesan and lemon slices.