New Year's Menu: Pasticcio at the Opera and in the Kitchen

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In anticipation of the world premiere of The Enchanted Island, the new pasticcio (pastiche) at the Metropolitan Opera, a question emerges: just what is a pasticcio?

In a fine article for The New York Times my friend and colleague Cori Ellison refers to an operatic pastiche being something of a recipe and mentions the Greek dish pastitsio. In Italy, pasticcio has several meanings. It could be used in the operatic sense but it also suggests a big mess or something that has been bungled. But the primary definition is of a wonderful savory pie filled with meat, pasta, vegetables and mushrooms. It is an ideal dish to serve for a holiday meal.

Lucia Valentini-Terrani (1946-1998) was a marvelous and vibrant mezzo-soprano from Padua. She died much too young of leukemia at the same Seattle hospital where José Carreras had been successfully treated some years before. Valentini-Terrani was outstanding in Rossini’s heroic roles such as Malcolm as well as his charming young women such as Angelina and Isabella in the comedies. She also excelled in Handel, Vivaldi and Verdi

Lucia (right) was a delight to know, and an excellent cook too. She gave me this festive pasticcio recipe from her home town for my book, The Authentic Pasta Book (1984) whose original title was better: Pasta Diva.

Pasticcio di Maccheroni Padovano

serves 6

Filling

1 ounce dried funghi porcini, soaked in tepid water

1 stick unsalted butter

2 ounces prosciutto crudo, minced

1/2 onion, minced

1 small carrot, finely minced

1 stalk celery, finely minced

3 meaty squabs (0r 2-1/2 pounds chicken if squab is not available), cleaned and quartered

Salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup Marsala wine

1/4 cup beef broth

12 ounces penne pasta

4 ounces prosciutto cotto (boiled ham), cut in slivers

A few slices of truffle (black or white, as available)

1 large egg, beaten

1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

 

Pie Crust

3 cups unbleached flour

6 ounces (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

3 large pinches of salt

2 level tablespoons sugar

1 large egg

1 egg yolk

 

Besciamella (sauce)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup whole milk

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Two hours before cooking, soak the funghi. Then combine the flour, butter, salt, sugar and beaten egg for the pie crust to make a dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Bring a large pot (at least 6 quarts) of cold water to a boil. When it reaches a boil, add a pinch of salt. When it returns to a boil, cook the penne until nearly al dente. Drain well (do not rinse!) and set aside.

To make the pie filling, melt 1/2 stick butter in a large pan or casserole and add minced prosciutto, onion, carrot and celery. Sauté briefly and then add the pieces of squab and a little salt and pepper. Cook slowly and carefully, turning the pieces to make sure they cook evenly. When the squab sections are golden brown, pour the Marsala over them and continue cooking until most of the wine evaporates. Then add a little tepid water, enough to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and cook very gently for 30 minutes or a little more, until the squab is cooked and the pan juices are rather condensed. Turn off the heat.

While the squabs are cooking, perform the following tasks: Remove the funghi porcini from the soaking water and squeeze them dry. Strain the water they soaked in and set aside. Sauté the funghi in a little butter and set aside.  When they are cool, chop into bite-sized pieces. 

Make the besciamella: Heat the milk until almost boiling. In the meantime, gently melt the butter in another pot. When it becomes foamy (make sure it does not turn color), add the flour and nutmeg. Stir so that the combination is completely free of lumps. Pour in the hot milk a little at a time, stirring all the while with a wooden spoon. Continue cooking for 8-10 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. The result should be velvety and uniform. Remove from heat and cover.

Preheat oven to 375˚F (190˚C).

When the squabs are cooked, remove from the pan and cool until comfortable to handle. Remove the meat from the bones and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Add the broth, strained funghi water, salt and pepper to the ingredients in the pan, and then add the cooked penne, squab pieces, slivered prosciutto cotto, funghi, truffle slices, the remaining 2 ounces of butter, beaten egg, the Parmigiano-Reggiano and, finally, the besciamella. Gently combine the ingredients, cover, and set aside.

Take the pie dough and divide it into two pieces, one slightly bigger than the other. Roll the two pieces of dough out into circles to fit a 10-inch pie dish. Butter the dish and line it with the larger crust. Now add the penne-squab mixture and distribute the ingredients evenly on the pie crust. Carefully cover this with the smaller pie crust and join the two crusts at the seam, pressing firmly with your thumb to flute the edges. Brush the top of the crust with  beaten egg yolk. This will give the crust more luster.

Bake the pie in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Serve very hot.

An ideal wine pairing is a noble red such as Amarone, which is produced in the region where this dish is from. If unavailable, try a Barbaresco or Brunello. If you prefer something sparkling, a dry Prosecco from nearby Treviso would be perfect.

Wishing you a festive New Year’s celebration and a 2012 filled with music and love.

Photo: A promo image for The Enchanted Island at the Met, featuring David Daniels and Joyce DiDonato. (Nick Heavican/Met Opera)