zucchini, ham & béchamel pasta
Honestly, I would have probably walked right past the bag of lumaconi pasta in this zucchini, ham & béchamel pasta dish if it hadn’t been for my little one. She spotted the critters at the supermarket and, never one to pass up on potential fun, made me understand through many, many, many words that I WAS going to purchase them and that we WERE going to eat them. So I bought them. Two packs, in fact.
Even though they looked like abnormally large snails of sorts (thus the name ‘lumaconi,’ which means snail in Italian).
And even though I did not grow up eating these sort of unusual shapes because a.) my dad was partial to smaller, more delicate pasta shapes, and b.) my mother was more of a no-nonsense, practical woman who, when she wasn’t making her own delicious homemade pasta, never felt the need to stray much beyond penne, ziti, and spaghetti.
For the next week I circled around the bags of lumaconi like a shark. I occasionally picked up the bags and eyed them almost anthropologically, as though they had just come out of King Tut’s burial vault. I feel silly admitting this but I had to psych myself into actually cooking them because I feared, in my heart of hearts, that they weren’t going to be good. Silly, I know. Thank goodness for children and their ability to get us out of our own way, right?
As it turns out, eureka. The lumaconi were delightfully chewy but also crispy in spots, since I ran them under the broiler for a couple of minutes once they were done baking. And the creamy filling added just the right amount of savoriness to round out the texture of the dish. The bechamel in the filling adds richness, but not in that ‘ugh, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing’ way. Having said that, the lumaconi are absolutely filling. Three was all I needed, along with a nice salad, to feel absolutely satisfied. My husband ate four. All this to say that while 1 300-gram bag doesn’t look like it could amply feed 6 people, it really does. And that’s even with 3 of the lumaconi breaking in the cooking process.
One final thing, make sure to boil the lumaconi in the largest soup pot you have. So fill the beast all the way to the top, minus a couple of inches, because the best way to protect bulky, large pasta while cooking them is to give them as much space as possible in the salted water.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you folks, this dish is NOT a 30-minute meal. As a matter of fact, I found myself making this dish one morning when I was also juggling another photo shoot and a column deadline and I must admit to having grumbled to myself in frustration more than once. But as often happens with involved dishes, the results more than make up for the time it took to make them. But don’t take my word for it, make them and see for yourself.
making zucchini, ham & béchamel pasta
Start by preparing the béchamel sauce. Add 4 cups whole milk, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 of a yellow or white onion and 8-10 peppercorns to a small pot. Heat very slowly on medium low, stirring occasionally. When it is just about to boil, take pot off the heat. Allow milk to cool and the flavors to infuse into the milk, about 20 minutes. Strain. Now that you’ve aromatized the milk, you can follow these pictorial directions for making béchamel.
As the milk for the béchamel is heating up, wash and finely dice 3 medium zucchini. Dicing zucchini is one of my least favorite cooking tasks, although I did come up with a system, as you can see below, to try to speed up the process as much as possible. Hope it helps you too.
Heat a skillet on medium heat for a minute and then add 2 TBSPs olive oil. When the oil begins to swirl but is not yet smoking, add 1 small thinly sliced onion, along with a couple pinches of salt. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes. Add the zucchini with a couple more pinches of salt and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until the zucchini are thoroughly cooked but not falling apart. Let cool.
While the zucchini mixture cools, finish making the béchamel. Place 8 TBSPs (1 stick) unsalted butter in a medium-sized saucepan and melt it over medium heat without letting it turn brown. Add 1/2 cup flour. Quickly whisk until the mixture becomes velvety smooth. Whisking all the while, cook the flour and butter mixture for about 5 to 8 minutes. You will notice that it will start to foam slightly as it bubbles. Once the foaming subsides and the mixture turns a golden color, pour in ½ a cup or so of the cooled and stained milk and whisk vigorously once again until you’ve loosened the thick flour mixture. Add the rest of the milk, whisking constantly. Within minutes the mixture will start to thicken. Add sea salt and taste for seasoning. (Makes 2 1/2 cups.)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling add salt (1 TBSP per 4 cups water is the general rule of thumb). Add 1 300 gram package of lumaconi-shaped pasta and cook for 3/4 of the instructed cooking time on the pasta’s packaging. Drain, rinse under cold water to stop the pasta from cooking, and drain well once again. Set them aside on wax paper, making sure the ‘snails’ are not touching, until you are ready to stuff them.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
In a medium bowl combine the cooked zucchini mixture, 1/4 cup plain brearumbdcs, 225 grams of mozzarella or scamorza, 8 oz. of diced, thick unsmoked ham slices,
and 1 cup of the béchamel sauce. (BTW, in case you’re not familiar with it, scamorza or scamorzarella is a semi-soft, white cheese with a piquant, milky and creamy flavor. Its texture is elastic and stringy, and is comparable to a firm, dry Mozzarella. It can be found in the specialty cheese section of many well-stocked supermarkets.)
Mix gently but well. Taste and adjust for seasonings.
Carefully, using a small spoon, fill each lumaconi with the prepared filling. Place 3/4 cup of béchamel sauce at the bottom of a baking dish large enough to accommodate all the pasta in a single layer. Spread sauce throughout bottom of baking dish. Add the filled lumaconi.
Divvy the remaining béchamel sauce on each lumaconi. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and cover the baking dish with aluminum foil.
Place baking dish in oven and lower the temperature to 350°F. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. If desired, run it under the broiler for a couple of minutes so that it barely browns on top. Serve piping hot. Makes 4-5 servings.