Gulf Coast Cooking

Tax Day is today, and comfort food may ease the pain

So it's finally here, tax day. Either you have filed for an extension, you have faced the music and paid your dues, or, lucky you, have received or are awaiting for your refund.

No matter the case, there's a good chance it has been a stressful time and thus, should be a time to treat yourself to something special.

There is a category of food that is custom-made for days like today, and it is a category that almost everyone loves, or at least has a handful of favorites -- comfort food. It is the go-to food when times are hard, whether it is just a blue day or, like today, a day of general dread.

Yes, the patriot will say, it is a necessary day as we have to pay for the services we expect from those that govern, but it does not mean we have to pay our way joyfully. Enough said.

There are so many recipes that fit into this much-loved group; chicken and dumplings, chicken fried steak, fried chicken, cornbread and beans, cheese grits, jambalaya and macaroni and cheese to name a few. Certainly your list will be different, but these are soul-satisfying foods that we crave at hard times.

There are a handful of pasta dishes that fit this bill, and it is no wonder. When pasta is cooked properly, nothing is as delicious, hearty and filing. But pasta al forno, or baked pasta, must rate near the top of the list.

The type of pasta chosen for these recipes is not a choice set in concrete. You can use your favorite, but it will be a bit more enjoyable if you get out of your comfort zone and try something different.

The Italians recognize more than 100 pasta shapes, in at least seven categories. Local grocery stores carry but a handful of shapes, but there are many more available via the Internet. A few wonderful choices include ziti, pappardelle, talgliatelle and cannelloni.

By the way, small shell shaped pasta is called conchiglie, but the large shells are called conchiglioni.

RIGATONI WITH PEAS AND HAM

1 package rigatoni

1 cup best quality whole tomatoes

1 cup cooked green peas

1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 pinches red pepper flakes

Cook the pasta until it is almost done, remove and set aside. Sauté the ham in some good olive oil until well-browned, add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Combine the ham, peas, tomatoes and red pepper flakes and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss in the pasta and mix well. Add to an oven proof dish, cover with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake at 350 f. until hot and bubbly. Serve with a nice Tuscan Chianti.

PENNE WITH SAUSAGE AND RICOTTA

Most grocery stores carry fresh Italian sausages these days, but try to find a grocery store that makes their own in-house. If you just can't find any, use one of the spicy fresh breakfast sausages that are so common in the South.

1 box penne pasta

1 pound fresh Italian sausage

2 cups best quality whole tomatoes

3 cups ricotta

2-3 cloves chopped garlic

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 bay leaf

Water

Olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 350 f. Cook the pasta according to package directions, but remove and drain 2 minutes early. Toss the pasta in some good quality olive oil. Take the sausage out of the casings and sauté in a little olive oil until well-browned. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes, and the bay leaf and stir in a little water till the sauce is quite thin. Simmer till it is nice and thick, it should easily coat the back of a spoon. Pour some of the sauce into an oven-proof dish, add the pasta, and mix. Now add big dollops of ricotta, followed by the rest of the sauce. There should be nests of ricotta, so do not mix. Top with the mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and starting to brown. Serve with a great glass of pinot noir from Oregon.

LEEK AND PASTA

Leek is a wonderful vegetable that is dreadfully under utilized. It is delightful with just a bit of crumbled bacon, in white sauces or baked with chicken. If you are not familiar with leek, take the plunge and get to know it well.

1 bunch leek or cabbage

1 box linguine

2 smashed cloves garlic

2-3 tablespoons butter

3-4 slices smoky bacon or sausage

3 cups milk

3 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 pinch nutmeg

1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Black pepper

Red pepper flakes

Optional chopped jalapeño pepper

Prepare the pasta according to package directions, but remove two minutes early and drain. Add a little olive oil to the pot and put back on the stove. Add two cloves garlic and allow to cook only long enough to flavor the oil. Remove the garlic and toss the pasta in the oil. Cut the ends of the leek and wash thoroughly. Give the leek or cabbage a rough chop. Sauté the bacon in a sauté pan until crispy, remove the bacon and chop. Leave 1 tablespoon bacon drippings in the pan, add the butter and add the leek or cabbage and jalapeño to the pan and cook until tender. Season aggressively.

If you do not wish to make the béchamel sauce, you can stop at this point and serve the pasta tossed with the sausage, greens and topped with the cheese.

In another pan bring the milk to a low simmer, whisk in the flour and nutmeg to make a béchamel sauce. Make sure there no lumps. Combine the pasta, béchamel and bacon in an oven-proof pan, top with the cheese and back to 20 minutes. Serve this pasta dish with a cold Gruner Veltliner, a lovely white wine from Austria.

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