This isn’t really a political blog, but in light of recent circumstances (ahem — GObama! — ahem), I thought I’d make a little exception. Because if there’s one thing I learned from the long road to the Presidential election, it’s that food is political. Period. You cannot like arugula, for instance (which ironically was only a peasant food in Italian cuisine until recent waves of popularity), without being “elite” (and possibly, a terrorist). Let’s look beyond that. This casserole combines orecchiette pasta (if you don’t know what this is already, you better hit the books), homemade basil pesto, ARUGULA, pignoli (that’s “pine nuts” to you, cracker!), Fontina and Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese, bound together in a creamy bechamel and baked to a golden crust. What’s so un-American about something so insanely delicious? Let the elitist witch hunts be history!
And this is what I would have made had I still been entering the fourth annual Casserole Party tonight, hosted by Emily Farris, author of the new cookbook Casserole Crazy. Think I could have been a contender? I guess we’ll never know. Instead, this year, I had the enviable duty of serving as last-minute replacement judge. When the lovely and dear Camille Becerra’s restaurant Paloma burnt down due to a fire in the building last week, Emily asked if I would like to be promoted from contestant to judge in her place. Having no idea what my casserole creation would be at the time, I gladly accepted. Sometimes inspiration strikes at all the wrong times. (Paloma is currently renovating, and Camille hopes to bring it back into business ASAP.)
I’m sure you’re wondering who the real winner(s) of the casserole contest will be, and that shall be in my next report. For now, I hope you take my so-called casserole expert advice that this completely elitist, and completely satisfying dish is something to die for. Like you would your country.
This is a completely vegetarian dish, although if you wanted to go even further with the elitist scheme I might suggest adding some bits of browned pancetta (aka rich man’s bacon). Oh, and on another elitist note, you’ll notice I only baked two individual “au gratin” dishes of this. Well, that’s because I didn’t need to feed a room full of contestants and judges any longer. But I kept the recipe for two individual servings intact below because, well, elitists just don’t have big ‘ol families to feed, now do they? Nor do they aim to expand their tidy waistlines with a full tray of leftovers to nosh at the rest of the week. So, double it up or even triple it if you want to make a more traditional-sized casserole. I won’t judge, promise. (Snicker, snicker.)
Completely Elitist Orecchiette & Arugula Casserole
(makes 2 servings)
1 1/2 cups orecchiette pasta
1 bunch arugula, stems trimmed
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup grated Danish Fontina
2 tablespoons basil pesto
1/4 cup pine nuts/pignoli
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
pinch of nutmeg (optional)
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Bring a medium saucepan with salted water to boil. Cook the pasta according to the box’s directions to al dente. Drain, reserving the cooking water, and refill the pot with the water. Bring to a boil again, and drop in the washed and trimmed arugula to blanche for 30 seconds. Remove with tongs and place immediately into an ice water bath. Drain, and roughly chop the greens.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Drain the pot and cook the butter and flour over medium-low eat, stirring until bubbly and evenly dispersed. Add the milk and cream and keep stirring over medium heat until it begins to bubble and thicken. Add the Parmiggiano, pesto, spices, salt and pepper. Next add the drained pasta and arugula and the pine nuts. Taste for seasoning.
Divide mixture into two greased individual au gratin dishes or small, oven-proof bakeware. Top evenly with the grated Fontina. Bake at 375 for approximately 30-40 minutes (depending on how large your bakers are), or until top is lightly browned. Let cool before serving.
(for 2 servings)
1 1/2 cups orecchiette pasta (about 1/3 15 oz. box at $1.99): $0.67
1 bunch arugula: $2.00
1/4 cup pine nuts (about 1/4 2.5 oz. pkg for $3.99): $1.00
1/2 cup grated Danish Fontina (at $7.99/lb): $2.00
1/4 cup grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano (at $11.99/lb): $1.75
1 cup milk: $0.50
1/2 cup heavy cream: $0.75
1 bunch basil (for the pesto): $1.50
1 clove garlic, 2-3 tablespoons olive oil (for the pesto): $0.25
1 Tb each butter and flour, salt, pepper, cayenne, nutmeg: $0.35
Seven brownie points: So what if there’s a lot of ultra-rich dairy in this au gratin? The French eat like this, as the old adage goes, without getting fat or heart disease. Just remember to drink plenty of wine with it. But in all seriousness, this richness couldn’t have chosen a better partner than arugula. Full of vibrant flavor and vitamins, it purportedly has as little as two calories per half-cup serving. Also, pine nuts, like most nuts, carry unsaturated or “good fats,” known to counteract the effects of bad, saturated fats while adding some protein to the dish.
Six maple leaves: It’s not easy being green and elite, but this casserole demonstrates how close it comes to being entirely possible. Luxury products like cheese and olive oil are often imported when considered the finest. But many alternatives to these traditional European cheeses and other artisanal foods are made closer to home, often available at the Greenmarket any given Saturday; I just didn’t happen to be shopping on the right day, unfortunately. Next time, I swear I’ll show you. Fortunately, I’d picked up my farm-fresh arugula bunch over the weekend, and had some organic cream and milk on hand.