The Dabble

-food with a side of life-

Let’s Talk Quality Ingredients In Baked Pasta with Smoked Mozzarella

I could eat pasta for most of my meals in a week but upon scrolling, scrolling and scrolling some more through my site, you’d never guess how much I enjoy pasta. In my defense, I’ve had it in my noggin that pasta dishes are too simple to share but if that’s the excuse, then why have I shared simpler ideas? I think it’s one of those things that I love so much that I am afraid to post and chance tarnishing its reputation. That really makes no sense (unless you live in my reality) so what I mean to say is that I will try harder to post more pasta dishes. You might think I’m crazy and that I do post enough of these but to me it definitely doesn’t equate to the amount of love I have for pasta.

I’m not so strange that what I like rarely coincides with what the public likes…at least when it comes to food. I don’t understand the fascination with the Bachelor and the other sleazy “reality” shows. Please don’t try to tell me that it’s true love and that a guy that makes out with a dozen or so women is truly trying to find his one and only with the cameras rolling and bright lights. Puh-lease! So without any more drawn out explaining, heeeerrre’s passsstttta! You have to say it like “heeerrre’s Johhhnnny” Ed McMahon-style, not like axe-wielding Jack Nicholson in the Shining…I don’t want to be responsible for any readers being paralyzed with fear thinking about his character peaking in at them from a door he attacked with an axe. Maybe the ghosts influencing him wanted some baked tomato and smoked mozzarella pasta, just maybe.

The important factor in this dish is to use quality ingredients. I think that all recipes should have quality ingredients but I also come from a small town where I know that can’t always be the case (even driving 30 minutes to another town couldn’t help) and I know, they can be more expensive but if you purchase a great olive oil, you can use that for recipes where it’s the star, where there are only a few ingredients and use a lesser quality but still delicious one for other recipes. I almost always use sea salt too and that can be found (in most stores) beside all the other salts.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to use the pre-shredded cheese (and I do use it sometimes) at the grocery store but for this, I wanted smoked mozzarella and that you probably won’t find in the cheese aisle. I get my smoked mozzarella and Parmesan (most of my cheese) from my local co-op but check out your local deli. If you can’t find smoked, purchase a good quality mozzarella (not fresh) and shred it yourself, or ask the person behind the counter to -they can do that you know. I would try the cheese before getting it, which is also allowed, to be sure you like the taste.

When I make a pasta dish, I rarely use spaghetti, fettuccine or another rod pasta, unless it’s absolutely necessary. I personally think that eating penne, fusili, rigatoni, ziti, and other tube-shaped pasta (along with several other shapes-there are sooooo many varieties) are easier to eat and I like their presentation better. For this particular dish, I used mostaccioli. If you are using whole wheat pasta, be sure it’s a good quality brand. I’m a fan of Barilla and think that it is carried by most stores. A good whole wheat pasta can be hard to find and I’ve grabbed a version that tasted like cardboard or turned gummy in the past so be mindful of that.

Now for the tomatoes, I’ve used a wide variety of brands in my pasta dishes and really do believe that the Italian whole plum tomatoes in the 28 oz. cans are great and worth the higher price. I’m thinking of the San Marzano or Muir Glen for example. There are also great organic canned diced, whole and several other varieties that would work well for a pasta dish. If you want to add a little more depth, add canned fire roasted tomatoes. I love the oomph they give a dish. If you are a fan of making your own, by all means, go ahead. I love making my own sauce with fresh summer tomatoes but it’s winter right now and tomatoes are scarce in the states due to the cold in Florida, or so I hear. I haven’t noticed in Minnesota because I’m getting the canned.

All of this said, I’m not a snob about quality-it’s a personal choice so not for me to say- and it’s hard to go wrong with pasta baked with cheese, use what you want. Those are just some ideas because I’ve noticed they really make a difference.

Baked Pasta with Smoked Mozzarella

Baked Pasta with Smoked Mozzarella
Serves 6 (with bread and/or salad)

2 tbsp quality extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
28 oz. canned whole Italian plum tomatoes (I used half of these and half fire roasted)
2 tsp dried oregano
sea salt/pepper
1 lb. pasta (I used mostaccioli but use whatever tube-shaped pasta you want)
8 oz. shredded smoked mozzarella (or just shredded mozzarella)
2/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 400. Grease a casserole dish with olive oil lightly and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over low/medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, a dash of pepper and 1 tsp salt (or less), simmer for 15 minutes, until slightly thickened. if you purchased whole tomatoes, blend the sauce or mash, leaving tomato pieces through some of the sauce. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the directions, drain and set aside. Taste the sauce and add more salt if needed. Toss the pasta with the sauce and place half in the casserole dish. Top with half of the mozzarella and Parmesan. Top with the remaining pasta and the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake for 15 minutes, until cheese is melted and yummy looking. Serve with a salad and/or garlic bread.

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