baked rigatoni with tiny meatballs

So this dish basically made me have three realizations.  One–bechamel sauces are a thorn in my side.  Two–sometimes really hard work, and having a recipe take two or three times longer than you thought it would can be completely worth it.  Three–I might have been a little crazy to make this and double the recipe.  And I realize that starting my explanation with these facts may make you run away.  Bechamel?  Twice as much work?  No thank you.  But I just have this to say…that you are missing out.

I first saw this recipe over on everyone’s favorite blog sometime this summer and bookmarked it just for winter because it didn’t seem right to make it in the summer, not in the season of light foods and fresh sauces (not that I really eat fresh sauces, because as previously stated, I have a thing about tomatoes).  But it looked like the perfect thing for winter, warm and cozy and cheesy.  And really I thought it looked so good that it only took me about a week into the Christmas season to make it (more like 2 days if you count actual meals I have made in the past week as we have been otherwise occupied in wallpaper hell).  Not that you need to wait until winter to do it.  Oh no, no, no.  How much I have to learn when it comes to letting seasons dictate what comes out of my kitchen, because while sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes I just plain miss out.

So on to the recipe.  A lot of times these baked pasta dishes float around I think because they tend to be quick and easy (throw in some noodles and some sauce) and can feed a nice crowd.  So let me just tell you from the start: this is not one of those.  No, this dish took a bit of time (although probably would have taken less time if I had not decided to double it).  There’s the rolling the meatballs, and the cooking of them, and the patient stirring of the bechamel (why can I never get mine to thicken? is it the heat? how I added the milk? Idon’t know…but I’m going to figure it out!).  But once all that is done, the dish is super fast to cook.  As in, I think this would be perfect for making ahead of time, and then baking off, as opposed to making and baking it all at the same time.

But once all of the work was done, even as I was rolling my eyes and warning my guests because the dish didn’t turn out quite like I thought with a measly thin sauce and some extra cream cheese I added that didn’t melt quite like I thought it would, it turned out wonderfully.  I sat down to eat and completely forgot about all of that because oh my goodness it was so good.  And I don’t often feel this way, but this made all of the work completely worth it.  It, in fact, exceeded expectations.

First of all, how have I never had meatballs before?!  Well, probably because they are generally laden in some kind of tomato sauce.  But these little meatballs were wonderful, with a hint of cheese and a perfect amount of seasoning.  And then there is the pasta, creamy without being heavy, and cheesy without feeling overloaded.  I think I just closed my eyes when I took the first bite, out of relief that it turned out, but then just to savor the light creaminess and the perfect little meatballs.

And even though I got flustered in the kitchen making this dish (15 minutes away from people arriving and my sauce would still not thicken), and it took twice as long as it should have because I doubled the recipe, I’m already plotting to make this again because honestly I probably would have even done more work than I did to be able to eat this pasta.

Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Bake Time: 15 minutes

Serves 6-8

For the meatballs:
1/4 cup milk
1 slice white bread
1 lb. ground beef, or pork, or lamb (or a combination)
1 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil for frying

For the sauce:
4 1/2 cups milk
6 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoons grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

For the rest of the dish:
1 lb. rigatoni
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon butter (or non-stick cooking spray)
1/4 cup milk

1. Begin by making the meatballs.  Heat the milk over medium heat (or in microwave) until warm, but not simmering.  Remove milk from the heat once it is warm.  Trim crusts off of the white bread.  Tear bread into the small pieces and drop the pieces into the milk, letting them soak for about 5 minutes.  Once the bread as soaked, remove it from milk and squeeze the excess milk out of it.  Then put the bread into a large bowl.
2. Add ground meat, garlic, parsley, grated cheese, egg, salt, and pepper to the bowl with the bread.  Use a fork to gently combine until ingredients are evenly combined and meat is moistened.
3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Pinch off a small bit of meat and form it into a small ball, about 3/4 to 1 inch thick.  Repeat until all meatballs are formed, placing them all on the parchment lined baking sheet.
5. Spread 1 cup of flour out on a plate or in a small shallow bowl.  Roll meatballs in flour and then shake of excess flour by swiftly rolling balls across your spread out fingertips (or by placing them in a strainer and gently shaking them).
4. Pour vegetable oil into a skillet until it is about 1/4 inch deep.  Heat oil on medium to medium-high heat until hot (you can test this by dropping a bit of flour into the oil and seeing if it sizzles).
5. When oil is hot, gently place meatballs one at a time into the oil.  Fit as many as possible in the skillet without overcrowding it and cook until meatballs are browned on all sides, about 3-4 minutes on each side (they can generally be turned once).  Remove meatballs from oil and place them on a plate lined with a paper towel.  Repeat until all of the meatballs are cooked (and then remove the oil from the heat and allow it to cool for a while before you try to clean it up).  Set meatballs aside.
6. Begin the bechamel sauce by heating the milk for it.  Pour milk in a saucepan over medium-low heat until it is lightly simmering, but not boiling.
7. In a larger saucepan, melt butter over low heat.  When butter is melted, add flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk.  Allow butter and flour to cook together for several minutes, until mixture is smooth.  Begin adding milk 2 tablespoons at a time, constantly stirring, and waiting to add the next batch of milk until the mixture is smooth.  Once about 16 tablespoons (8 additions) of milk have been added, start adding the milk 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and waiting to add the next bit until mixture is smooth.  When all of the milk has been added, continue to stir until thickened.  Then stir in nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
8. Cook rigatoni is a large pot of salted water until al dente.  Then drain pasta and pour it into a bowl.  Add 2/3 of the of sauce to the pasta, along with half of the remaining cheese and all of the meatballs.
9. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
10. Heavily butter (or spray with non-stick cooking spray) a 9 x 13 baking dish.  Pour pasta mixture into dish, spreading it out evenly.  Pour remaining milk evenly over the dish.  Then spread the remaining bechamel on top of the pasta and end by sprinkling the remaining grated cheese evenly over the top.
11. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until top begins to turn golden brown.  Serve warm.

3 Responses

  1. Kathryn December 5, 2011 at 11:28 am |

    Oh I remember seeing this and deciding that I should, like you, wait until winter to make it and then completely forgot about it! Thanks for the reminder!

    I always use cornflour (I think cornstarch in the US?) to make bechamel sauces and it seems more reliable than AP flour but there’s always those minutes of blind panic when you think it will never thicken up!

    Reply
  2. Laura December 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |

    Yum! I love baked pasta dishes with mini meatballs. They’re a bit of an effort to make, but they are so worth it. This looks delicious!

    Reply

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