This Abruzzese Casserole with Meatballs and Pasta manages the tricky act of being easy, exciting and unique, and yet also comforting and familiar. Not to mention scrumptious! This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Carando®. All opinions are entirely my own.
I know I probably give the impression that everything in the The Spiced Life Kitchen is 100% from scratch every meal, but this is not the case. Of course all things being equal, I prefer to make things from scratch. And as a stay at home mom I have been privileged to focus on food in a way that I know moms who work outside the home cannot. But even those of us at home have busy days when we need some help, and figuring out which brands and what ingredients we need is crucial to happy and healthy eating. I am excited to share my latest “ingredient helper.”
The story really starts with Sammy and her meatball obsession. She adores them, and while I realize that meatballs on their own are not super laborious, they are when you add them in as an additional step in whatever meal you are preparing. And, the honest fact is that while I enjoy meatballs, I do not share Sammy’s obsession. So when she begs for meatballs, I often say not today, maybe next week. Or something like that.
The second part of this story is that my Giant Eagle only had the Carando Abruzzese Meatballs, not the Sicilian Meatball flavor I had been planning on cooking with. The only reason I cared is because having been to Sicily, I had a decent idea of what would work with Sicilian meatballs. Alas, I only could find the Abruzzese–and then my aunt said “Well since Grandpa’s family is from Abruzzo it should all be instinct!”
Ack! The pressure was on!
After a fair amount of reading–and you know me, often the history of a place becomes crucial to understanding its food culture, thus satisfying both of my obsessions–I think I created a casserole that is delicious, easy for the home cook to replicate, authentic in the sense of honoring Abruzzese food traditions, and simultaneously unique and comforting. If my family–who decimated the casserole that I thought might have leftovers–is anything to go by, I hit it out of the park.
And the most important critic? Sammy went crazy. She repeated several times throughout the meal how much she loved the meatballs. I have the feeling they will become a staple at my house. Carando Meatballs have no MSG or fillers; they are gluten-free and made from premium pork. Most exciting, they are handy for when you are craving a quick pasta and sauce but need some good protein to go with the meal. You can find a coupon to save $1 on Carando Meatballs at Giant Eagle here. They can be found in the fresh meal deli section, which is the section near the meat counter.
Now you may notice this Abruzzese Casserole with Meatballs and Pasta calls for eighteen meatballs, which is more than one package. I was serving five people (my mom was visiting) and I originally thought the casserole would last two nights with John gone the second night, so I settled on eighteen meatballs. Ha! As mentioned, the casserole did not last two nights. I did have some leftovers though, so I will be browning the remaining meatballs from the second package, boiling up some extra pasta, and tossing them all together. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and more grated Pecorino Romano would easily easily add some extra flavor. Or you could make the remaining meatballs, toss them in the remaining sauce, and serve them as meatball subs. Another “meal stretching” option for the future would be to make two slightly smaller casseroles with twenty-four meatballs (two packages) from the get-go and freeze one of them. I know my family wishes I had!
Abruzzo is Italy's leading exporter of saffron, and more "exotic" ingredients like raisins and curry powder are definitely not unheard of there. Abruzzo was part of the Kingdom of Sicily historically, which came with many Islamic food influences from the time of the Moors. I brainstormed with those influences in mind to create a casserole that is both exciting and familiar comfort food.
- 1 lb pasta of choice, cooked to al dente (something tubular is preferred here)
- 4 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 1 sweet bell pepper, chopped
- 2 T minced garlic
- 1 t dried thyme
- 1 lb sliced crimini mushrooms
- 2 t curry powder
- 4 large tomatoes chopped, preferably local (otherwise substitute equivalent canned)
- 1/2 t kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 cup red wine, plus a little extra for deglazing (be sure to choose a wine that would be acceptable for drinking)
- 2 pinches saffron, soaked in a few tablespoons hot water
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup pasta cooking water
- 18 Carando Abruzzese Meatballs, browned but not cooked through
- approximately 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano to cover casserole, plus more for serving
Begin cooking the pasta while you are making the sauce. Be sure to use salted water and only cook to al dente because the pasta will also cook in the casserole. Don't forget to reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water!
Preheat the oven to 375 F or 350 F convection.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium-large heavy skillet over medium high heat. When it is hot, add the onions with a pinch of salt.
Keeping the red wine nearby to deglaze the pan if the onions start to scorch or stick, let the onions cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Add the sweet bell pepper and garlic. Stir, and cook another 5 minutes.
Add the thyme and the mushrooms with another pinch of salt. Toss and cook, letting the mushrooms expel their water and start to brown, another 5 minutes. By now I definitely needed to deglaze with a few splashes of wine.
Add the curry powder and stir it in, letting it roast briefly, like 30 seconds. Then add the tomatoes and stir them in with the 1/2 teaspoon of salt (only add a pinch of salt if using canned tomatoes with salt).
- Let the tomatoes cook down for 5-7 minutes (if you are using canned tomatoes, you can reduce the cooking time to 3-5 minutes).
Add the 1/2 cup red wine and let it boil off a little. You want it pretty loose because you do not want the casserole to dry out. Let it boil for about 3 minutes.
Transfer the sauce to a large bowl. Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the meatballs to the pan. Let them brown on 2 sides, about 5 minutes for the first side and 3 minutes for the second side.
While the meatballs are browning, add the raisins to the sauce and stir them in. Also add the saffron with its soaking water.
Remove the meatballs to a medium sized bowl.
Mix the cream into the cooler sauce.
Drain the pasta and mix it into the sauce, along with 1/2 cup of reserved pasta cooking water.
Note that everything through this point could be done the day before if you are pressed for time.
Very lightly oil a deep casserole dish. Add about 2/3 of the pasta-sauce mixture. Then layer the meatballs over that and add the rest of the sauce and pasta over the meatballs.
Sprinkle generously with the grated Pecorino Romano.
Cover with foil and bake for 20 mins (if you are starting with a cold casserole assembled the day before this stage will take longer, around 40 minutes).
Then uncover, sprinkle with more pecorino and bake for 15-20 more minutes (longer depending on how undercooked your meatballs were when they were added to the casserole; I slid a thermometer into one of mine and confirmed it was 165 F).
Let the casserole stand for 5-10 minutes if you have the time. Serve with even more grated pecorino over individual servings.
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