I wanted to make a really luxurious dinner. I am in general a fan of baked pasta dishes - they are somehow rustic and elegant at the same time - think of a good lasagne or a fine crespelli. They generate pleasure. I believe the secret is to do with the quality of the cheese sauce. This one is particularly fine, binding together a gentle melange of textures and flavours to create a really superlative dish. It is important to use a cheese like Gruyere or a hard sheep cheese like Pecorino for the delicacy - it makes for a subtle sauce with a lovely long finish. Something like Cheddar is simply too strong, too brash. All it would do is overpower the whole dish, wiping out the pleasure of all the other elements, and all your hard work.
Spinach and Mushroom Pasta Bake
This is a perfect winter supper.
200g pasta shells
500g mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced
1 tbspn olive oil
1tbspn chopped tarragon
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
65g plain flour
fresh grated nutmeg
300g gruyere, grated
Salt and pepper
I decided to try and cut down on the washing up and use the same pan to prepare each step of this dish. It worked but took about an hour all told before it went in to the oven, so 90 minutes altogether. If you're a bit more pressed for time you could use multiple pans and hope the washing up fairy visits later.
In a large pan cook the pasta shells in salted water till just al dente. Drain, rinse and put in to the bottom of a large casserole dish.Heat the oil in the rinsed out pan then add the washed spinach, cover with a lid and cook for a few minutes over a low heat till the spinach collapses. Drain in a colander.
Rinse the pan again and heat a tablespoon of the butter and add the sliced mushrooms. Stir till they are nicely coated in melted butter then cover and cook over a low heat for three or four minutes. Take the lid off and allow about half the accumulated liquid to evaporate. Tip the contents over the pasta in the casserole dish. Squeeze out the excess water from the cooked spinach and add it to the casserole along with the chopped tarragon and mix it altogether evenly.
Rinse the pan again!
Make a cheese sauce - melt the remaining butter and add the chopped onion and crushed garlic. Cook over a gentle heat for about five minutes till the onion is translucent and it all smells lovely. Turn the heat very low then add the plain flour and stir to make a thick paste. Keep stirring till the only lumps are onion bits and the mix has become a golden biscuit colour. This takes 7 or 8 minutes - if you stop too soon the flour stays raw and the final sauce will be horrible. You don't want that.
Still on a low heat start adding the milk and stirring it in. Incorporate the milk smoothly before adding the next bit and keep going till all the milk is used. By this point it should be about the consistency of single cream - add more milk if you need to. Raise the heat to medium and tip in all but a tablespoon of the grated cheese and stir till it melts into the sauce. It should now be about the consistency of double cream. Grate in a generous amount of nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Have a little taste to check the sauce tastes great.
Pour the sauce over the pasta/vegetable mix then sprinkle over the last of the cheese and a tablespoon of fresh breadcrumbs. Bake in a moderate/gas mark 4 oven for 30 minutes till the top is crusted and golden. Allow it to cool for a few minutes before serving with a green salad and some crusty bread.