I love throwing this dish together. It makes me feel closer to my Italian roots and stirs wonderful memories of my visits with Grandma Lucia at the family home in the Italian countryside. I spent hours at her side, cooking pasta in her charming European kitchen. Okay, none of this happened and I’m not even sure I have any Italian roots but it’s a nice story and I’m sticking to it.
You will be surprised how easy it is to whip up this homemade, rich, tomato based meat sauce. However, the key to this dish my friends, is the bechamel. It adds a creaminess that allows you to cut down the amount of cheese you would typically add to a baked pasta dish. I even use lowfat milk for the bechamel but you can use whole milk if all your jeans fit just right. Sure, go right ahead. And put a little extra butter on your bread and pour yourself another glass of wine…how wonderful that must be for you. Okay, back to the pasta. Ready to get cookin’?
Start by cooking the rigatoni a couple of minutes shy of the package directions. My package said to let it go 12 minutes so I pulled it off the stove at 10 minutes. It’s going to go in the oven and you don’t want it getting too soft. Drain it and set it aside.
Coat a large pan with some olive oil and place it over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and garlic and cook them for a couple of minutes, until softened.
Add the ground beef. Cook and stir, breaking up the meat with your spoon as it cooks. When no pink remains, drain the grease from the pan and return it to the heat.
Add the crushed Italian style tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt, and pepper to taste.
It just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t add some wine. A hearty red is best but pretty much any red you have on hand will work. I’m adding this tasty Malbec we had open.
In goes the basil. Combine all of this good stuff and turn the stove down to low. Let it simmer while we move on to the bechamel.
If you’ve never made a bechamel – fear not! It sounds all fancy and difficult but it isn’t, really. Watch. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium low heat. Grab a whisk and whisk in 2 tablespoons of flour. Cook and whisk for a couple of minutes to help cook off the flour taste.
Slowly pour in 1 cup of milk that you’ve warmed in the microwave. It’s important the milk is not cold from the fridge when it hits the butter/flour mixture or it will not blend as nicely. Add it in a stream, whisking away. Toss in a dash of nutmeg. Now, turn the heat up just a bit and continue to whisk until the mixture thickens. It will thicken, I promise.
See? Told ya. We have bechamel! Remove it from the heat.
In the meantime, look at what has happened to the beautiful sauce. Time to remove it from the heat.
Pour the meat sauce over the prepared pasta. I kept it in the large pasta pot I used to cook it in…works perfectly. No need to dirty another pan.
Give it a good mix and resist the urge to eat it like this. It’s going to get better.
Time to layer it up. Coat a lasagna or other large pan with cooking spray and pour half of the pasta mixture into the pan.
Spoon half of the bechamel over the pasta layer.
Top with half the mozzarella and Parmesan. Repeat this layering one more time with remaining ingredients and it’s ready for the oven. Cover the pan with foil and place in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 5 minutes.
Can you stand it?
Grandma Lucia would be proud.
Creamy Baked Rigatoni with Meat Sauce
- 1 box (16 ounces) rigatoni, cooked till barely al-dente
For the sauce
- Olive oil
- 1/2 cup onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 (28 ounce) can crushed Italian style tomatoes
- 1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- Fresh ground pepper, to taste
- 1/3 cup red wine
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced
For the bechamel
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup lowfat milk, slightly warmed
- Dash ground nutmeg
- 1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated or shaved
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Cook onion and garlic in olive oil till tender. Add ground beef. Cook till no longer pink and drain off grease. Add remaining sauce ingredients and simmer while preparing bechamel.
- In a small saucepan melt butter over medium low heat. Sprinkle in flour and whisk till smooth. Gradually whisk in milk and nutmeg. Turn heat up to medium and and whisk and cook till smooth, thick and creamy. Remove from heat.
- Combine meat sauce and pasta and mix thoroughly. Spray a lasagna pan with cooking spray and layer 1/2 of the pasta mixture, half the bechamel and half the cheeses. Repeat layers. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 5 minutes.
- Make-Ahead Method: Prepare dish but do not bake. Cover with foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours before baking. Add about 15 minutes to baking time if cold when going in the oven.