This is one of those incredibly simple, incredibly good recipes. Its 'proper' name is Italian Beef Noodle Bake, but in my family we always called it Italian Special. I've been eating this since I was a kid, so it's officially an antique. Last night when I was making it, I got to thinking about how things have changed. The first time my mother made chicken cacciatore, she had a devil of a time finding a supermarket that stocked canned tomatoes. Back then, the more a recipe claimed to be Genuine Chinese Style Chicken or Authentic Chinese Style, the more likely it was to call for something like Vegemite. And spice equalled salt. Want more genuine? Add more salt. Want more authentic? Yep. More salt.
In my youth I was put on an elimination diet for allergies which called for pure olive oil. I couldn't find it anywhere. The supermarket had olive oil blends, but nothing pure. It was only through a Greek friend of the family whose cousin had a market stall that I got it, and even then my Greek friend (who was not known to be tight with money) brought the smallest bottle home because it was just so expensive. Not knowing what I was doing, I tried to use it to make chips, deep frying sweet potato (I wasn't allowed to have potato) which promptly disintegrated. I wasted my precious cache of olive oil and went hungry.
But now… who doesn’t have olive oil in the pantry? It’s wonderful to reflect on how richly the food landscape in this country has developed.
1 tablespoon (20ml) butter or margarine
500 grams minced beef
425 gram tin tomatoes (I prefer whole tomatoes)
2 tablespoons (40ml) tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon (20ml) flour
5 teaspoons (25ml) cold water
250 grams small shell shaped noodles
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
250grams grated mozzarella cheese
Melt butter or margarine and brown meat quickly. Add undrained tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, garlic and seasoning. Cover and simmer gently about an hour, stirring occasionally. Blend flour with water. (This should have a liquid consistency as, if it is too much of a paste, it will form clumps when you add it to the sauce instead of thickening it.) Taste sauce and adjust seasoning if necessary, then add the flour/water blend. Simmer a further ten minutes, stirring to make sure thickened sauce doesn't catch. Cook noodles in boiling, salted water. Drain when al dente. Place half of the cooked noodles in a greased ovenproof dish and sprinkle them with half the parmesan. Pour over the meat sauce (fishing out the bay leaf), then sprinkle the meat sauce with the remaining parmesan. Top with the remaining noodles then the mozzarella cheese (you may prefer to use less than the recipe calls for.) Bake in a moderate oven until the cheese is nicely browned and the sauce bubbling - around 30-45 minutes.
Simplicity itself, and oh so delicious.