The season has changed, and I feel a sense of bittersweetness. I tend to feel this emotion around this time of year, and this year it is stronger. Perhaps this feeling is due in part to our trip to San Francisco last week, mainly to make peace with Monty’s stepfather. He is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and though he’s doing better since we went to visit, we know how this goes. The rest of the bittersweetness is from visiting my home town and making the absolute best of it. The best news is that San Francisco experiences what is known as “Indian Summer,” which makes up for the fact that the real Summer in the City means fog~ lots of fog. It was pretty foggy while we were there, but that was okay with me, too. Fog is iconic in San Francisco~ it’s also really nice for taking photographs and avoiding lots of harsh shadows. What was really nice, was that it was relatively warm, so it wasn’t such a shock coming from Hawai‘i.
Now, we are home, and I’m feeling the need for comfort. Since I still have a nice chunk of gruyère cheese in the fridge, I think it’s time to make some baked pasta. For this recipe, penne is the pasta of choice. I think almost all of us who grew up in America, grew up being served a dish something like this. I know my mom would make something similar, though without the gruyère… this cheese makes it more elegant. Because this is baked, the cheese melts into the meat sauce and pasta, making it almost akin to an Italian mac & cheese, except there’s not so much cheese. And, there’s meat. I guess the main point is that it’s comforting.
You can also make this vegetarian style, simply by omitting the meat and using more mushrooms, instead. Ready for comfort? Here’s what you’ll need:
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
½ pound mild Italian sausage
½ pound lean ground beef
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup small diced yellow onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (or use a mixture of mushrooms)
2 tablespoons brandy or Amontillado sherry (red wine will work in a pinch)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with basil
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano, or ¼ to 1/3 dried
1 to 1½ tablespoons minced fresh marjoram, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 pound penne pasta
¾ cup grated Parmesan
2 to 3 teaspoons minced flat-leaf parsley (optional)
1½ cups grated gruyère cheese
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown sausage and ground beef, season to taste. As the meat browns, break up the large chunks into smaller pieces. Push meat to one side of the skillet then add the onion. Cook until it’s translucent, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium, then add garlic and cook for about a minute or until aromatic.
With meat still to the side, add mushrooms to the onion-garlic mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook until most of the moisture has evaporated and mushrooms are tender, about 3-5 minutes.Stir together the meat and mushrooms. Add brandy and cook about 30-45 seconds.
Add tomatoes, oregano and marjoram. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally. Simmer for 15-20 minutes or until flavors have blended. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated, if need be, just rewarm before continuing with recipe.
Heat oven to 350º. Spray or coat a 9-by-13-inch casserole or backing dish with cooking spray or oil; set aside.
Cook pasta in well-salted water according to package directions; be careful not to overcook. Mine was a bit overcooked, as you can see… the pasta is splitting. Life goes on…
Drain pasta and mix with sauce, then add the Parmesan and parsley. (I put all of it into a huge bowl and very thoroughly mix it all together). Taste and adjust seasoning again, if necessary.
Spoon the mixture into a casserole dish, top with grated gruyère and bake for 15-20 minutes, until pasta is thoroughly warm and cheese has melted. This makes a very large amount, so you can serve a crowd of about 10, or freeze the rest for another night. You could also easily cut the recipe in half.
I sautéed zucchini with tomatoes to serve with this. Perfect! I love tomatoes, so a few more are good in my book.