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14 November 2012

Pasta Arraganata (Baked Pasta With San Marzano Tomatoes) and the Amalfi Coast

After having a blood exam one early morning, I walked into the nextdoor bar to have my breakfast.   When I walked inside, I could already hear loud female voices disagreeing about something that was being shown in the television.  For that time in the morning, I found it unnerving but my tummy was already growling and I had a pending headache so I just continued and went inside. 

As I sat there, I was able to piece together what the commotion was all about.  Four elderly women, who seem to be regulars and friendly to the female owner of the bar, were watching a cooking TV program dubbed in Italian.  The man who claims to have Italian blood, was cooking a simple ragu' (tomato meat sauce) and his ingredients and method sent the ladies off the wall.  It was like watching a group of men watching a football match in the TV.  Exactly the same.  They were jumping from their seats, they were shouting "No!" in unison and bickering at each other.  Believe it or not, the women were actually angry at how the man was treating the ragu', putting too much ingredients and claiming that it was a genuine dish.  I was amused at the scene but I almost joined them when I saw the amount of onions the cook was putting in his ragu'.  Really, he couldn't need that much!  

We all have different ways to put together basic recipes and if you stray away from its cooking "norms", expect the likes of these elderly women to straighten up your cooking, by force.   I remember cooking my first ragu' using a recipe I got from a pasta package.  I wanted my own so I didn't ask anyone for their personal ragu' recipe.  However, the recipe I was following was using 50% butter and 50% extra virgin olive oil for sautéing.  Since I was cooking for a party of about 15 guests, I was cooking a big batch and I needed a lot of butter.  My mother-in-law and her sisters, who were helping me at the kitchen, panicked at the amount of butter and convinced me not to use it.  I had the feeling that they would have tackled me to grab the butter away from my hands.   From then on, I took away the butter from my recipe and used 100% extra virgin olive oil to the relief of the ladies watching. 

The pasta arraganata from the Amalfi Coast perked my interest so much after I saw it in Casa Alice, a TV program I frequently watch.  It was the first time I encountered a recipe using uncooked spaghetti and tomatoes together.  And from the way the host of the show gesticulated how good it was, I believed her.  The pasta looked like it wouldn't last long on a dinner table and the ingredients used were the best of Italian cooking.  I didn't wait for long. 

As soon as I found some San Marzano tomatoes, I made this pasta immediately.  San Marzano tomatoes are the best kind of tomatoes to be used for this dish.  As I researched a bit at the internet about this little known pasta, the only tomatoes the recipes use are San Marzano.  If they are not available in your area, a possible variety to substitute it would be Roma tomatoes.  I would assume that the flavors would be diverse and less tastier, but it's the closest tomato variety to San Marzano.   Not all varieties of tomatoes give the same flavors.  

I read in Wikipedia that in the U.S., San Marzano tomatoes are the genetic base of the Roma tomatoes.  Roma is a cross between San Marzano and two other varieties, one of which is also a San Marzano hybrid.

Since this really delicious pasta came from the Amalfi Coast, let me share with you some remaining photos of the area that I didn't get to post from our Christmas trip there last year.  Below are links to my two recipe and travel posts that have some pictures of the towns of the Amalfi Coast.

Since the recipe is for a big batch, between 5 - 6 people, I lessened the ingredients and I used a smaller baking dish.  A regular computation of uncooked pasta per person is between 80 - 100 grams in any pasta dish.  Remember that the juice of the tomatoes are the ones that will serve as the "water" to cook the uncooked pasta so a lot of the plump, ripe tomatoes are needed.  Base your calculations from the recipe below which I got from the person who demonstrated cooking the pasta.  A classic pasta arraganata doesn't require porcini mushrooms so it is optional.  

While preparing this dish, I tried to capture the layering with photos.  I hope they can make the preparation of this dish easier to understand.  

Buon appetito a tutti!

Pasta Arraganata

Adapted from Cecilia's recipe as seen in Casa Alice TV (video clip in Italian) 

Serves 5 - 6
No specific size for a baking pan but you can base it on a  27 x 35 cm. rectangular size.
  • 500 g. vermicelli or spaghetti (broken in the middle), (allot 100 g. of pasta per person for a good serving)
  • 30 g. dried porcini mushrooms, soaked & drained (save water used for soaking)
  • 2 - 2 1/2 kilos San Marzano tomatoes, tops cut off and halved (can also be sliced in 3 lengthwise if the tomatoes are slightly big)
  • 250 g. grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 100 g. or handful of fresh basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  1. Drizzle the baking pan with extra virgin olive oil. 
  2. Put a layer of halved tomatoes on the pan with the skin side down and the pulp side up.
  3. Layer the following:  an abundant amount of parmigiano reggiano + a big pinch of salt + basil + porcini mushrooms.
  4. Cover with half of the uncooked pasta.
  5. Layer the following again: an abundant amount of parmigiano reggiano +  porcini mushrooms + remaining uncooked pasta + a big pinch of salt + a good drizzling of extra virgin olive oil + basil.
  6. Cover with another layer of halved tomatoes with the pulp side down and the skin side up.  Press tomatoes to make some of the liquid come out.  
  7. Sprinkle with another round of parmigiano reggiano + salt + drizzle with extra virgin olive oil + water used for soaking the porcini mushrooms, about 1/4 cup + basil.
  8. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 - 200 degrees Celsius (I put it at 200 degrees Celsius.) for 30 minutes.
  9. Take the pan out of the oven.  Transfer to a plate the tomatoes that are on top of the pasta.  Turn the pasta in the pan using a fork and spoon.  Put back the tomatoes again with the skin side up and the pulp side down.
  10. Put back the pasta in the oven and cook for another 30 minutes or until cooked through. 
  11. Can be eaten when it's hot, lukewarm, cold or even a day old.