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When I was first living on my own, one of the most ambitious things I cooked was a version of this dish from Joy of Cooking: All About Pasta & Noodles. It seemed simple enough, with a luxurious payoff, using ingredients that were familiar and comforting: roasted red peppers in a creamy sauce flavored with three different cheeses, all tossed with pasta and baked. And since it did indeed prove to be all those things, I revisited the recipe time and time again, tweaking or morphing it based on what was in the fridge. Eventually, as I progressed as a cook, it got shelved in favor of more creative, challenging preparations. In retrospect, I'm not sure why.
I decided to resurrect it and tweak it a bit, thinking of the ideal ingredients and flavors for early fall.
I start by roasting the red peppers in a hot oven, then letting them steam in a foil pouch to make them easier to peel (you can, of course, use store-bought roasted red peppers if you wish—look for ones packed in water, not oil). I then purée the peppers in a blender until they're completely smooth, since I like that luxurious creaminess that coats the medium-sized pasta shells later on.
The original recipe calls for ricotta, Fontina, and pecorino cheese. I keep the first two, which provide the milky freshness of ricotta and good, smooth, melting qualities of Fontina. In place of the pecorino, though, I swap in shredded Asiago for a nuttier flavor. The cheeses get mixed directly into the puréed roasted pepper mixture, along with some cream.
Rather than straight-up heavy cream (as recommended in Joy of Cooking), I split my heavy cream with half and half to lighten the dish a bit. Of course, I had to add another element to bring it back down to earth: how about some Italian sausage? Loose Italian sausage sautéed with onions and garlic provides the basic flavor base that the sauce is built on.
The sauce gets tossed with pasta shells that I've cooked separately, then transferred to a casserole dish, dotted with butter, and baked. This dish can be assembled in advance, but ideally it should be baked right before serving. The pasta does soak up the liquid, so you may need some additional cream, half and half or, perhaps, milk if you decide to prepare it in advance.
Can you think of a better way to use up those end-of-summer red peppers in a dish comforting enough for fall?
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