One of my favorite childhood memories is when my family would spend a weekend day making a large pot of meat sauce. Dad learned how to make the sauce from the brief time period when his bachelorhood corresponded with his service in the Air Force. His roommate was Italian-American and only knew how to make spaghetti sauce, while Dad only knew how to make one thing as well, fried rice. The two would alternate meals, spaghetti one night, fried rice the other.
I don’t remember much about the recipe other than it involved lots of cans of tomatoes and tomato paste and the emptied cans doubled in duty by acting as the measure for water added to the sauce. I also remember that my favorite part of the sauce was the texture added from slices of button mushrooms, probably because it reminded me of my favorite soup at the time- Campbell’s canned cream of mushroom.
When we would make the sauce, my job was to hover over the pot with a large mound of half frozen ground round. I’d relish the feel of the icy crystals in the meat as I’d tear off small chunks of it then drop it into the pot of bubbling tomatoes and vegetables. There’d be a satisfying plop and splash, so the task was fun for both the tactile sensations and the mess making potential. Once all the ingredients were added, the sauce would simmer on the stove for hours, filling the house with the aromas of tomato, garlic, and beef.
The smells just heightened my anticipation for one of my favorite meals: baked mostaccioli. Ziti pasta mixed with the sauce and piles and piles of stretchy, milky mozzarella cheese. The pasta would absorb the flavors of the sauce yet there’d still be the little pools of bright orange grease that bubbled to the top. You know that you frown at that grease, but you also secretly know that’s a sign that you’re going to have a good meal.
So it’s no surprise that I frequently turn to baked pastas whenever I feel like I need comfort. Like I said, I don’t remember the ratios for the sauce we made while growing up, but rather than trying to recreate that sauce of my memory, I like experimenting with and changing around the ingredients that I put into my tomato sauces. I always start with a base of ground onion, carrot, and celery for sweetness and will add a splash of white wine for a subtle tang, but with this version, I rendered slices of prosciutto in the pot first to add a slightly salty, meaty flavor. As a result this sauce was lighter than your regular meat sauce while the prosciutto imparted some nice texture, a little crispy and chewy, to contrast with the firmness of the penne pasta.
To boost up the vegetal flavors, I added some thawed, frozen chopped spinach to the pasta so that there were threads of green contrasting with the bright red sauce. The spinach also makes me feel a little less guilty if I decide to forgo a salad and just enjoy a big bowl of baked pasta for dinner.
- olive oil
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 oz prosciutto, cut into 1/4 inch wide slivers
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 1 large carrot, chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
- 1 large celery stalk, chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 28 oz can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 16 oz dried penne pasta
- 10 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry in a kitchen towel
- 4 cups mozzarella cheese
- 2 tbsp parmesan, shredded
- salt and pepper
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Cook the prosciutto slices for about 5 minutes, or until they look slightly crisp and are an opaque pink color. While prosciutto cooks, toss the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add this mixture to the pot with the tablespoon of butter and cook for 3-5 minutes or until softened. Add the white wine and cook until the wine has mostly evaporated, another 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste so that all the vegetables are covered and the mixture thickens a little. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium low and let simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in basil leaves.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook penne just 1 minute shy of the package instructions for al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Mix in the squeeze-dried spinach, using your fingers to break it apart. In a large baking dish, add half of the pasta mixture then sprinkle on half of the mozzarella cheese. Add the rest of the pasta and cover it with the remaining cheese and parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is a little browned on top then let stand for 10 minutes before serving.