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Baked pasta with tomatoes & mozzarella (Pasta al forno con pomodori e mozzarella)
“This pasta dish is loved all over Italy. It is eaten by families at gatherings or celebrations and is also something the monks I visited at the Abbazia di Farfa, just outside Rome, have every Sunday as a special lunch. I’m pleased to say my faith in this dish has been restored, as I did fall out of love with it (as a result of trying to cook it in schools on a tight budget, using the cheapest pasta in the world). When I was in Altamura, in Puglia, I visited a school where they were eating baked pasta for their school lunch, bizarrely enough! However, Italian government laws state that the schools must use organic pasta and extra virgin olive oil, and they also had freshly made mozzarella! When made properly like this, it’s absolutely delicious. This was the recipe that was made for 1,000 kids at the school I visited and it was very, very good. ”
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400ºF/gas 6 and put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Heat a couple of lugs of extra virgin olive oil in an appropriately sized pan. Add your onion, garlic and chilli and slowly fry for about 10 minutes on a medium to low heat until softened but without any colour. If you’re using fresh tomatoes, remove the core with the tip of a small knife, plunge them into the boiling water for about 40 seconds until their skin starts to come away, then remove with a slotted spoon or sieve and remove the pan from the heat.
Put the tomatoes into a bowl and run cold water over them, then slide the skins off, squeeze out the seeds, and roughly chop. Add your fresh or canned tomatoes to the onion and garlic, with a small glass of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 20 minutes. Now put them through a food processor or blender to make a loose sauce. Tear your basil leaves into the sauce and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and a little swig of red wine vinegar.
When the sauce tastes perfect, bring the water back to the boil. Add the orecchiette to the water and cook according to the packet instructions, then drain and toss with half of the tomato sauce and a handful of Parmesan. Get yourself an appropriately sized baking pan or earthenware dish and rub it with a little olive oil. Layer a little pasta in the pan, followed by some tomato sauce, a handful of grated Parmesan and 1 sliced-up mozzarella ball, then repeat these layers until you’ve used all the ingredients, ending with a good layer of cheese on top. Pop it into the preheated oven for 15 minutes or until golden, crisp and bubbling. Italians seem happy to eat this dish at room temperature or quite cold, but I prefer to eat mine hot.