Friday, October 25, 2013

Perfect Pasta for a Crowd

I can't tell if this is a useful recipe or, like, pizza toast.
At Michael’s parents’ house, there used to be a plaque on the fridge with this quote: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Thoreau said that. But my awesome sister-in-law taped a note over it that said, “I would rather be crowded on a pumpkin than have a velvet cushion all to myself.”

But, given that it's one of the things I make most often, it seemed worth sharing.
Most of the time, that is exactly how I feel. For example, what was I thinking, having only two children? I planned poorly. I should have had 5 or 6 children or at least 4. And more cats. More, more, more. Which is why, often, large or very large groups of friends are over at our house. Or we’re over at someone else’s house. And the deal used to be this: you could invite everyone over for an impromptu dinner, but you had to order pizza and not feel lame about it. That way, nobody had to worry that you were being put out. Plus, you maintained the happy social principle, which is that you’d rather be crowded around a pizza than hunched alone over a leg of duck confit. 

I usually bake it in our huge 16-inch roasting pan, but this particular evening I split it up to put meat sauce on half.
Only, honestly, I’m too cheap to order pizza for 20 as often as I want people to stay for dinner. That’s a long way of getting to this pasta dish, which is one of the best and most satisfying ways I know to feed a large group of kids and adults. Add big green salad or a crate of clementines, and that’s it. You need nothing else. Everybody loves it. And recently, a young friend of ours said, “Oh, awesome! We always have this over here!” I took it as a compliment. Which was how it was intended.

Perfect Pasta for a Crowd
This is delicious. But: you really have to attend to the details here. That means really salting the water, really buttering the pasta before you put sauce on it, and really grating a pound of cheese. (It also means really waiting until bionaturae pasta goes on madness sale at Whole Foods.) Those small things elevate this dish from humdrum to utterly wonderful. You’ll see. (If you’ve eaten this at my house a million times, and are sniggering at the words “utterly wonderful,” I am giving you the finger, lovingly.)

A note on amounts: how much pasta you will need varies wildly, depending on how many people you have, how many of them eat a lot, and how good it is. Two pounds will feed around 10, and three pounds will feed 15 to 20. I know that makes no sense, in terms of the math, but I think that if there are lots of people over, then all the kids are too excited to eat much. (Just a theory.)

2-3 pounds good whole-wheat pasta shapes (as I’ve said before, I love bionaturae)
4-6 tablespoons butter
1 ½-2 quarts mild, tasty sauce (see below)
1 pound whole-milk mozzarella, grated (Don't use fresh mozzarella, because it's expensive and will be impossible to grate. Unless that's what you have, then do use it. Get a kid to dice it for you by putting chunks of it in an egg slicer each of the three direction, to make perfect little cubes. Fun and effective.)
1 cup freshly grated parmesan

Bring a very large pot of water to a boil, and salt it until it is as salty as seawater. This does not mean dainty sprinkles of salt out of the shaker; this means big handfuls of salt. Really. Salt the water, stir it, and taste it. Keep salting until it's salty. Aren’t I bossy? I’m sorry.

Cook the past according to the package directions, then drain it, put it back in the pot, add the butter, and stir until the butter melts and coats the pasta. Add enough sauce to coat the pasta thoroughly, then add a little more sauce, then stir in the mozzarella and pour the pasta into a large, greased roasting pan--not a lasagna-sized pan, but the 16-inch kind you'd usually cook a turkey in. (It’s different in the photos here, because I used meat sauce on half of it, and so used smaller pans.) Sprinkle on the grated cheese.

Put the pan in a 350 oven and bake for around a half an hour, although this part is forgiving. If you want to bake it for longer, because of timing or a hunch about what will taste best, you can cover it for half an hour, and then uncover it for another twenty minutes or so.

Basic Tomato Sauce
This makes a lot of sauce, which you need.

1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons granulated garlic (or fresh, if you haven’t developed a weird midlife love of garlic powder)
1 28-ounce can tomatoes, ideally San Marzano (crushed, puree, or whole and smashed up)
1 28-ounce can Hunts tomato sauce (or another plain, herb-free sauce of your choosing—or more of the tomatoes you’re using above)
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (or ¼ cup red wine)
2 sprigs dried marjoram (or a pinch of oregano, if that’s how you roll)
1 or 2 nice, fragrant bay leaves

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat, and sauté the onion and celery with the salt until everything is translucent and tender, around ten minutes.

Add the granulated garlic, and stir for just a second, then add all the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Turn the heat to low, and simmer for as long as you can, covered, stirring occasionally. In a pinch, it can be ready in twenty minutes. But an hour is better—or stick it in your crock pot and forget about it for a while! Taste, and add more salt, sugar, or vinegar to brighten or balance the flavors.

Meat version
Sauté a pound of ground beef over high heat, until browning, then lower the heat and stir half of the sauce into it. (Or sauté two pounds of ground beef, and stir all of the sauce into it.) Simmer for 30 minutes or longer.


  1. Mmm - this is exactly what I was looking for (even if my husband calls it cafeteria food), along with the ever popular world's best salad. I'll toast you at dinner tomorrow!

  2. My Mom used to make something similar to this when I was a kid. We all loved it!

  3. shelli8:27 PM

    OMG, my 6th grade teacher had this quote on a poster in our classroom, too, and I've never forgotten it (I've never heard anyone quote it since, either! Thanks for a fun memory. And thanks for providing its source, too! Who knew?!) Did everyone have kitchy quotes posted on the walls back in the 70's? ;-) The plaque in my mom's kitchen read "my house is clean enough to be healthy but dirty enough to be happy." I've never forgotten that one, either, which just goes to show you my rather pointless memory for kitchy plaques and posters. ;-) I love your recipes, but I love even more the unexpected treasures your writing provides!

  4. Anonymous12:41 AM

    I have developed a mid-life love of the granulated garlic too!

    In fact, the only thing I remember from some article by Bittman in the NYT a couple of months ago - oh wait, it's coming back to me, about a guy in LA who makes amazing kebobs - was Bittman's completely unnecessary and snarky aside about the fact that the man's recipe called for powdered garlic (which he, Bittman, "hadn't used in about three decades" or some such snark.) Really. Was that necessary? Made me like him ever so much less.

    I make a version of this - with super salty water no less, muttering a small prayer as I pour it in that I'm not ruining my children's kidneys (or whatever it is - the heart? blood pressure? taste buds?) forever by doing so. But your version sounds *even* nicer and I shall, for our next gathering, try it out. Or just for regular dinner, which is honestly the most likely. (I was a bit wistful to read about your big gatherings. I wish we were there... but not yet. Only a year into yet another new place, and too many of us have little littles... )

    Anyway, anyway: thanks for the recipe, always a day brightener to have something new from you!


  5. Weird, the pumpkin quotation is on the wall at my local Trader Joes?

  6. Libramom100811:15 PM

    Catherine, I was JUST speaking to my husband about how I so wanted to live in a place where we could have people and their kids over for dinner all the time (our tiny apartment just doesn't cut it, especially bc we and our 2 kids barely fit into it!) and then I read this post. Like an exclamation point at the end of my yearning. We are looking for something we can comfortably afford. All good luck wishes, even fleeting ones, are welcome!

  7. OK, I think this will our my pre-trick-or-treating food! When you say large roasting pan, are we talking the size of a 9x13 pyrex (for the 10 people-ish servings)? Have you done it with (gasp) jar sauce? Is that going to ruin it? Thank you, thank you!


  8. Anonymous3:53 PM

    Oh! I grew up in a house full of kids. FULL. And though I'm not sure I could handle it as the mother, I really loved it as a child. Having someone lovingly give me the finger really DOES make this feel like home! Perfect!

  9. Anonymous7:14 PM

    This sounds so good! I have two kids and that's perfect for me - too many people around exhausts me. And fyi you have a lovely typo - "cook the past according to package directions" - sounds intriguing! :)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. i loved that typo too. so...evocative.

  10. Lisa Legters8:38 PM

    I have been a fan for years! Since your Baby Center days. Please tell Ben I thank him and my yoga pants thank him for the delicious mac 'n cheese cauliflower recipe that I whipped up tonight! I found it in last year's October Family Fun. I enjoyed melting the cheese and stirring in the sour cream in the bowl over the pasta water!! Big fun. And I have seriously eaten half the casserole myself. I will work on getting my children to cook for the family. I think you all are fabulous!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  11. Anonymous10:44 PM

    Everyone loves that Thoreau quote, but Thoreau ALSO said: “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” COME ON THOREAU MAKE UP YOUR MIND ABOUT GOURD SEATING

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  13. This recipe looks delicious. And your writing makes me want to cry. Thanks for all this. Newly-devoted fan. xox

  14. Made this for some friends last night and it was wonderful. And I made WAY too much so now I have a few dinners' worth in the freezer. Multiple wins!