Thursday, October 25, 2012

Italian Cheese Penne and Peas

Italian Cheese Penne and Peas.  Wow!  When I came up with the name, I wasn't trying to make it rhyme.  That was just a happy little coincidence.  It has a nice ring to it, though.  Even better than the name, are the flavors in this pasta dish, mainly garlic and good Italian cheeses.

I guess I could have called it Mac and Cheese, but that really would have downplayed, and insulted, it.  After all, this isn't your everyday elbow noodles with powdered cheese.  Nosirree!  This is mac & cheese's high-brow cousin.  Not that it's snobby.  No, this is a friendly, outgoing pasta.  It practically begs you to try it.  It just doesn't want to be confused with the boxed variety, that's all.  And, there's nothing wrong with that.  I mean, if you were this many levels beyond mac and cheese, you wouldn't want people calling you by the wrong, generic name either.

Really, if anyone deserves to be called a snob in this post, it would be me.  I freely admit that I do not like pre-processed, boxed macaroni and cheese.  Don't get me wrong, I used to eat it when I was a kid and thought it was great.  But, as an adult, I know we can do better, and it's not even that hard to do.  Once you see how easy it is, you won't be satisfied with that humdrum box anymore.  Are you ready to raise the bar?

Here's your Cast of Characters

1/2 Box of penne pasta

2 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons flour

1 Cup chicken broth (This isn't pictured.  I forgot to take it out for the photo.  Woopsiedoodle!)

1 Cup shredded Italian blend cheese

1/2 Cup freshly shredded Parmesan (Not the canned Parmesan that's pictured.  I had this out for the Tilapia and forgot to grab my block of Parmesan.  Sorry for the confusion! I am just on fire tonight, aren't I?)

1 Teaspoon, each, Lawry's season salt, pepper, McCormick Perfect Pinch Garlic & Herb, Mrs. Dash Onion & Herb & chicken bouillon granules (You'll see me add chicken bouillon granules to a lot of recipes.  I don't add enough to make things taste all chickeny - yes, that's a word - but it's gives a depth of flavor that I love.)

1/2 Sicilian blend seasoning (I use a McCormick blend.  You can use any variety you find, but it does need to be Sicilian and not Italian.  Even though it's a small amount, it's huge in taste, and it's not the same flavor as Italian.)

1 Bag of frozen peas

Preheat oven to 375.  Spray a large casserole with nonstick cooking spray. 

Cook pasta to al dente - usually 10 minutes but go by the box for the least amount.

Meanwhile, melt butter on medium heat in a skillet, preferably cast iron if you have it.  Once it's all melted, add flour to make a roux.

Stir frequently to keep from burning.  This is important because a good roux is the backbone of your bechamel sauce (white sauce).  If it's not good, your sauce is not going to be good.

Continue cooking until it becomes a rich caramel color.  A little side note, the darker the roux gets, the nuttier it tastes.  Just thought you'd want to know that.

Once you've reached the desired color, slowly add chicken broth in, stirring constantly to combine.  Make sure there are no lumps.  Let it cook until it just starts to thicken.  Turn to medium-low heat.

Add both cheeses and all of the seasonings. 

Mix vigorously to melt cheese and make the sauce smooth.

Do you see all the seasoning in there?  Now that is what I'm talking about!  That's the good stuff!

Right about now, the bechamel is smelling divine.  You will be tempted, as I was, to eat it right out of the pan.  I won't say anything if you do.  No judgement here.  But, you already have the pasta cooking, so you might as well finish the dish. 

If you aren't face first in the sauce right now, add the peas and mix well.

Turn to low.  When pasta is done, drain and place in your prepared casserole. 

Stir sauce with peas into pasta.  Mix well to coat all the penne and distribute the sauce evenly. 

Bake uncovered for 20-25 minutes, until heated through.

Do you see all that cheesy goodness clinging to the pasta and nestling inside?  That, my friend, is pure happiness.  Enjoy!

*Note:  If you have ever made a bechamel sauce before, you are going to notice that this is not a true one.  You are absolutely right.  This is a somewhat skinny version.  I replaced the cream or half and half with the chicken broth and let the cheeses make it creamy.  I am not a health nut, but I have realized that, as I get a little older, I have to work a little harder to keep weight off and stay healthy.  With that in mind, I am trying to cook a little smarter by substituting a few little things here and there.  In this case, you really don't miss the heavy cream.  Trust me.