I made just about the coolest dinner ever tonight. The recipe looks really daunting, but it's just time-consuming, not technically difficult. And, quite frankly, you can use any favorite recipe for thick meat sauce that you have. You'll need 1 cup for the timbale and quite a bit more for serving. Any bolognese-style sauce will do fine. Start the rice the day before you want to make the timbale, and it's just a matter of assembling the thing the following evening.
Sicilian Rice and Pasta Timbale
2 cups arborio rice
1 1/2 cups grated pecorino romano, plus additional for serving
2 28-oz. cans Italian plum tomatoes, drained 1 28-oz can pureed Italian plum tomatoes
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, peeled and minced
1/4 lb. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and coarsely chopped
3/4 lb. ground veal
1/4 lb. ground pork
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. sugar
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/2 lb. ziti or penne rigate (I used my favorite, Barilla Mezzi Rigatoni.)
1/2 3/4 cup thawed frozen peas
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
1. Cook rice in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain; transfer to a large bowl. Allow rice to cool completely (This takes way longer than you think! Do it the night before. Trust me.), then stir in 2 of the eggs (beaten) and 1 cup of the pecorino. Cover with a clean dish towel (Why? It's not for us to know.) and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.
Skip steps 2 and 3 if you're going to use your own meat sauce.
Purée tomatoes in a food mill set over a large bowl. Scrape pulp into bowl, then discard seeds. Set tomatoes aside. (This was ridiculous. I ended up with a bowl full of tomato juice. Next time I will use just puree, or just mashed-up plum tomatoes.) Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 20 15 minutes. Increase heat to medium -high, stir in mushrooms, and cook for 5 minutes. (Oh, what an amazing smell when the mushrooms start giving off their liquid!) Add veal and pork, breaking up lumps with a wooden spoon, and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium.
3. Combine tomato paste with 2/3 cup water in a small bowl, add to meat mixture in pot, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in sugar (I hate to add sugar to tomato sauce; I think it's a throwback to the days when good tomatoes weren't available. But I did it this time, all in the name of trusting the recipe.), nutmeg, basil, and tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low, season to taste with salt and pepper, and gently simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, for 40 minutes. Adjust seasonings and set aside to let cool.
4. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat until not quite tender, about 8 minutes. Drain, transfer to a large bowl, and toss with 1 cup of the tomato-meat sauce. (It is important that the sauce be thick, or pasta mixture will be too watery and timbale will fall apart when unmolded.) Save the rest of the sauce for serving. Add peas and 1/2 cup of the pecorino, then mix gently with a wooden spoon and set aside to let cool.
5. Preheat oven to 400°. Here comes the really fun part. To assemble the timbale, coat the inside of a well-oiled 2-quart 8" ovenproof bowl with bread crumbs. (My bowl was more like 2.5 quarts and 8.5" across and it ended up full.) Moisten hands so that rice and pasta won't stick to them, then completely line bowl with rice, forming an even wall about 1/2” thick. Gently pack pasta into bowl, then top with remaining rice, pressing it firmly in place. Lightly beat remaining egg, then brush over top of timbale.
6. Bake until timbale is golden, about 1 hour. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then loosen sides with a knife. Turn out onto a large platter. (If necessary, tap bottom of bowl to loosen.) Slice with a serrated bread knife into wedges at the table and serve topped with additional sauce, grated pecorino, and pepper.
It was delicious. The rice makes a crunchy outer shell, then soft rice, then all that good pasta and meat sauce inside. You do need extra sauce for serving, though, or it would be too dry. Pour a nice big red Italian wine alongside and you're all set.
*If you haven't seen this movie, rent it immediately. It's perfect. A much larger, more elaborate timbale features prominently.