Monday, 1 April 2013

Uber-Cheesy Broccoli and Bacon Pasta Bake

I know that with a title like that, there is little need to elaborate. It's a very simple equation: cheese + pasta + bacon = awesome. As stated previously, broccoli is a super-hero vegetable, but it also happens to be really delicious, especially with pasta (remember these? they were the bomb!). And who will turn down a plate of lovely pasta baked to cheesy, golden perfection?

Not this gal. And well, bacon is just a bonus. It IS Easter weekend, after all... Lent is definitely over!!

For a successful baked pasta dish, always remember to keep a very close eye on your pasta: as they will cook in the sauce, you have to leave them slightly undercooked before you mix them with the sauce and finish them in the oven, otherwise you will get a gooey mess of overcooked mush. Check you pasta as they boil they must still have a some crunch when you drain them! Small pasta cook faster than big or stringy pasta, so pay attention as you get them ready.

I don't buy bacon very often (we rarely eat it, and it ends up sitting in the freezer for ages before I get around to defrosting it and using it) but when I do, I get President's Choice Old Fashioned thick-sliced bacon. I justify this purchasing of extremely fat pig-bottom by telling myself that since we have some every 3 months or so, I am making up for lost bacon-free time by ingesting all the calories at once... Challenge that flawless reasoning!

This dish is definitely an indulgence. The equation I mentioned above might lead to awesome, but awesome often seems to rhyme with carbs and fat OD for some reason... Save it for dinner after an especially lousy work day, or a hockey night where you have a feeling the bloody Bruins are gonna win and you just know in your bones comfort-food is a necessity... All that cheese, bacon and pasta will knock you right out into an oblivious food-coma of bliss. Trust me.

2 cups small dry pasta (shell, ziti or macaroni are all wonderful options)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of bacon
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 cup fresh broccoli, florets and stem chopped small
340g mozzarella, grated
1 tablespoon bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Bring a large pot of salted water on to boil. Add pasta and cook until almost al dente. Drain and set aside. While the pasta is cooking, cook the bacon in a pan over medium heat until crispy.

Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen towels to absorb the excess grease. Chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.

Leave about 1 tablespoon of bacon fat in the pan and discard the rest. Cook the onions, garlic and parsley until just translucent.

Add the flour and stir until it has coated the mixture.

Gradually add in milk and continue cooking, stirring until mixture has thickened (if it is not thickening, you can add 1 scant tablespoon of flour, but don't dump it: lightly sprinkle it in the pan). Add the broccoli and cook for 2-3 minutes just to soften the florets. Season to taste with a pinch of sea salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Add 1 cup of the mozzarella, the bacon and the cooked pasta to pan. Toss to combine, making sure everything is well coated.

Pour the mixture into a greased ovenproof dish.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the rest of the cheese on top and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and the bread crumbs are golden.

Turn on the broiler for a minute of 2 before serving, to get a nice crisp on top.

If you want more veggies in there, you can halve the broccoli and add finely chopped cauliflower, carrot, zucchini and/or mushroom to you pan along with the broccoli, and throw them in the oven with your pasta. You might feel less guilty about stuffing your face will all this cheese...

This dish is indecently cheesy, and unlike chick-flicks and pop music, this is the awesome kind of cheesy!! The bacon's smoky flavor compliments the crunchy greenness of the broccoli very well. If you like it spicy, I would suggest adding a teaspoon of chili flakes along with the onion and garlic, but a few crunches of the pepper mill is really all you need to brighten up a bowl of these lovely pasta. You could also try mixing up the cheese by replacing 1/2 cup of the mozzarella you add to the sauce with the same quantity of any of your other favorite cheeses. I am sure Romano, Emental or Gruyere would seriously rock this pasta bake to a stellar level.

Technically, I was supposed to get 4 helpings, but those would be helpings for reasonable people with self-control... If you are making this for company, I strongly suggest doubling the recipe and getting very generous with the mozzarella...

As a side note, how annoying is it when your camera-phone takes nicer pictures than your camera-camera... Sigh!

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