Baked Rigatoni with Meat Sauce

Greetings, Mystic Meows!

Pasta, pasta, pasta! Sometimes I just get in the mood for a dish that reminds me of some of the Italian restaurants we used to go to when I was growing up in The Bronx. This is one of them. It just gives me all the feels every time I make a baked pasta dish like this. The sauce and other components are the same, although I do change up the pasta shape I use depending on how I feel or what I have in the pantry.

This time around I chose rigatoni. Ziti or penne also works for this too, but I haven’t cooked rigatoni in quite a while and knew it would turn out really nice and hearty. The overall flavor inspiration comes from a place called Mike’s Pizzeria that used to be on Bedford Park Blvd in my old neighborhood in The Bronx. I swear they had the best red sauce and meatballs! I’ve spent years trying to master that meatball recipe based on pure flavor memories.

This comes pretty flippin close, meows… It feeds a crowd and is very delicious and satisfying. Now their recipe was a bit simpler than what I decided to replicate because I had a lot of different types of cheeses on hand that I needed to make use of. That’s why I love the name Mystic Meals. Cooking is pure culinary alchemy. Sorcery. A little of this… a pinch of that, and voila! Plus over 23 years of professional cooking experience comes in handy 😉✨ Ok. Enough tooting my own horn. Back to pasta love!

Here’s the meatball recipe that I always use and any brand of your favorite pasta sauce in a jar will work just fine. However, if you make your own, even better. Just make sure you have plenty of it so the pasta isn’t too dry. AND please, please! When you’re boiling your pasta, A. Salt the water well, B., slightly undercook the pasta by a few minutes since it will continue to cook in the oven, and C., before you drain the pasta, reserve at least 2 cups of the pasta water to add to your sauce. The starch and salt from the cooked pasta water adds flavor and balances things out in case the sauce ends up on the thick side.

Mystic Meatballs

1 pound ground beef

1 large clove of garlic, minced

1 Tbls fresh chopped parsley

1/2 cup Italian style breadcrumbs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3/4 cup of milk

A pinch of red chili flakes

1 teas. Italian seasoning

1 Tbls salt

1 teas. ground black pepper

1. In a large bowl, mix everything together until well combined, and the meat has absorbed the milk and breadcrumbs.

2. In a small skillet, add a drizzle of oil over medium heat and grab about a tablespoon of the meatball mix. Shape into a small patty, like a little burger, and cook thoroughly. Once it’s fully cooked, taste and adjust the seasonings in the raw meatball mixture if need be. Keep in mind that you’ll be layering flavors. The sauce has salt, the cheeses are salty, so you don’t want the meat to be blandsville, but you also don’t want it to be too salty. You can always add more salt, but you can’t take it out. Make sense? 😉✨

3. In a large skillet over medium heat add about 2 Tbls of olive oil or oil of preference. You can either shape the meat mixture into meatballs and cook them that way and break them up later, or I just take the meat mix and drop it into the pan by spoonfuls and cook it a bit more like loose meat. I like the pieces to be broken up so there’s a bit of meat in every bite.

4. Once the meatball mix is cooked, deglaze the pan with about a cup of the reserved pasta water, stir to grab all those yummy bits of love, and add in your tomato sauce. Lower the heat and simmer altogether for about 10 minutes. Add the remaining pasta water to the sauce and adjust the seasonings.

Notice that I did not drain the fat from the pan. For me, fat is flavor unless there’s an excessive amount depending on what you’re cooking. In this case, there really isn’t a lot swimming around and what’s there just becomes part of the sauce and again, adds flavor and body to the end result.

Now you’re ready to add the meat sauce love fest to your pasta. I use a 1 pound ratio of dry pasta. It makes enough to feed four to six meows and remember that the pasta will continue to cook, expand and absorb all those flavors, so don’t worry if the sauce is a tad on the watery side. It will thicken up as it bakes. I layer it on similar to making lasagna. Sauce, then pasta, then cheese, and so on. For this I used fresh mozzarella, fontina, fresh Romano, whole milk ricotta, and Parmesan cheeses.

I emphasize fresh because it really does make a difference, and I’m bougie like that! But seriously, whatever you like to use will be fine. I baked the rigatoni at 350 degrees for 50 minutes covered with foil, and another 15 minutes uncovered. Once baked I let it rest for about 20 minutes before serving.

Serve it with some garlic bread and there you have it! Another mystic meal full of , well… lots of things but most importantly, love. It’ll come through in every bite! Thanks for stopping by, dear reader! Until we eat again… Happy Cooking!

Cheers, hugs, and meows!

Xo Nikki 💕✨

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Cuchifritos!!!

Greetings, Mystic Meows!

Growing up in The Bronx the food landscape represented the people who lived there. From Chinese food to Pizzerias, Jamaican to Chino Latino, Irish Pubs and good old fashioned Diners that served the best breakfasts and burger platters to satisfy your cravings day or night, there was always a place to go to get your comfort food fix, or a taste from your homeland or cultural background. On a side note, did you know that The Bronx is the only one of the 5 boroughs that’s part of the U.S. mainland? 😛

The diversity of the Latin food culture in The Bronx is something that I’ve grown to miss very much since I moved to California many moons ago. There are a few stand out Colombian and Cuban restaurants here in Tinseltown, but there is, at least to me, a lack of the Puerto Rican cuisine that I grew up eating. In particularly, Cuchifrito restaurants. What the flip is or are cuchifritos you ask? Allow me to explain…

Cuchifritos are various types of fried foods that originated in Spain and Puerto Rico, although most Latin and Afro Caribbean cultures have their own variations of them. Cuchi is short for pig or concino, and frito means fried. It was referring to the combination of fried pork prepared with a wide range of ingredients typically prepared in small bite portions and nowadays refers to the types of restaurants that serve this kind of food and frituras.

You’ll also find offerings of Pernil ( roast pork shoulder ) Arroz Con Guandules ( yellow rice with pigeon peas ) P.R. style Fried Chicken, Soups and Stews, Mofongo ( fried plantains mashed up with garlic and chicharron ) and Pasteles ( think tamales made with yuca, potatoes, and plantains instead of corn masa ) just to give you an idea.

It’s basically a full blown starch fest of the most delicious and epic proportions! Some of my favorite cuchifritos are Rellenos de Papa, mashed potato balls filled with seasoned ground beef or cheese and deep fried. So good! Then there’s the various types of Epanadillas that have all kinds of meat and vegetable fillings fried to crispy perfection. And how can I forget Alcapurrias, which is a fritter made with plantain and yautia filled with ground beef and yes… Fried! Absolutely delicious!

Some would say that most of these are an acquired taste, which I suppose is true. But I’m telling you… Once you taste any one of these you’ll be craving them just like I am today. These flavors remind me of my childhood in The Bronx, and both of my Abuela’s cooking. Now that I cook for a living, I have a better understanding and appreciation for it, and I find myself wanting to prepare the food I grew up with for my own family to keep those flavor memories alive and relevant. If you google Cuchifritos, you’ll see what I’m talking about as well as a ton of recipes that I know I’m going to try my hand at and I hope you will, too! Happy Cooking and happy eating!

Cheers, hugs, and meows!

Xo Nikki 💖✨

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All photos courtesy of google images 😉