A lasagna alternative
Most folks are familiar with the layered pasta dish known as lasagna.
Sometimes made with tomato sauce, meat and cheese, and other times with vegetables, it’s been a favorite form of Italian comfort food since the first modern recipe was published in “Liber de Coquina” in the 14th century.
We think it’s time you got to know timbale or timballo, an equally elaborate layered dish that dates back to the Renaissance, when a version served at the di Medici daughters’ weddings married the seemingly disparate flavors of goose, trout and candied orange peel in an envelope of pasta.
Named after the mold it’s cooked in — a timbale — the casserole-like dish resembles a cake or pie. Only instead of a pastry crust into which the cook folds veggies, meats or other goodies, the dish comprises cooked pasta or risotto bound together with eggs or cheese.
You also can use roasted aubergine or mashed potatoes as a shell or even gnocchi or ravioli; in the Abruzzo region of Italy, timbales are stacked with crepes (thin sheets of homemade pasta).
The goal is to create a crust that, after it’s baked and unmolded, will hold up to being sliced into hot, cheesy wedges.
That’s where the “wow” factor comes in: Unveiled at the table, with the different-colored layers and textures on display as you begin to portion it, timbale is nothing short of spectacular.
In making the dish, the variations are endless. This relatively simple recipe from Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s luscious “Sicily: Recipes From an Italian Island” features cherry tomato risotto layered with garlicky spinach and fresh mozzarella. But you could just as easily flavor the rice with saffron, or swap mushrooms or peas for the spinach, or up the ante with a savory mix of sausage, onions and pancetta as a filling. It all depends on what you’re hungry for and have in your pantry or fridge.
A couple of tips: Be sure to grease the baking dish with butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs to allow for an easy release. And allow the timbale to sit for 10 minutes before turning it out onto a plate, or you could end up with a messy glop — and deflated ego.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a timbale pan. The recipe also works with a well-greased cake tin, a springform pan, a Bundt pan or a souffle dish.
Rice Timbale with Cherry Tomato Sauce
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
1 white onion, roughly chopped
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds cherry tomatoes or whole plum tomatoes
1 sprig basil
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 ounces (1/2 stick) salted butter
1 shallot or white onion, finely chopped
21/4 cups Arborio rice
1 scant cup white wine
31/2 to 4 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock, divided
31/2 ounces Grana Pandano, finely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 4-ounce balls fresh mozzarella
2 cups squeezed out frozen spinach
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter and bread crumbs for pan
Handful basil leaves
Prepare sauce: Fry carrot, celery and onion in olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat for 10 minutes or until soft. Add tomatoes to pan with the basil, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat with the lid on. Stir frequently, smashing the tomatoes with a potato masher to break them up. Bring to boil, then remove lid and reduce heat to low simmer and cook for around 30 to 40 minutes.
Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary, adding a teaspoon of sugar if the tomatoes still taste acidic. Use sauce as is (chunky) or remove basil and use a stick blender to blend sauce to a smooth, velvety consistency.
When the sauce is finished, start the timbale: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil and the butter in a frying pan. Add shallots and fry until soft. Add rice and toast for about 3 minutes (it will start to crackle), then add the wine. Allow wine to evaporate and reduce for another 3 minutes, then add the tomato sauce and 21/2 cups stock. Stir frequently, keeping the heat to medium, and add a little more stock as necessary until you have a firm, thick risotto (it should take about 20 minutes.) Add 3 ounces of grated cheese and stir. Season to taste and remove from heat.
Cut mozzarella into 1/2-inch-thick slices and put into a colander to drain. Saute spinach in remaining oil flavored with garlic and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Abundantly butter the inside of a 12-by-8-inch overproof dish that’s at least 2 inches deep and dust with very fine breadcrumbs. (I used a 9-inch springform pan.) Spread half of the tomatoey rice in bottom of dish. Then add spinach, followed by a layer of mozzarella and half of the remaining grated cheese. Follow this up with the basil leaves and the remaining rice and top with the rest of the grated cheese. Bake in oven for 20 minutes or until cheese is bubbly on top.
Allow to sit for 10 minutes, flip on a plate to unmold, then serve straight away while still hot.
Serves 8 to 10.
— “Sicily: Recipes From An Italian Island” by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi (Hardie Grant Books, October 2016, $39,99)