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Powder Day Supper!
By Sally Belk King
Jan 29, 2008
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Whether you're hunkered down in a mountainside condo or simply want a spicy dish to get you through a dark winter's night, baked pasta dishes seem to always satisfy our primitive craving for big flavors (and yes, calories) this time of year.  I'm lucky enough to live near Big Sky Resort, where chef Wendy Wagner is known for her game dishes and other inspired--and filling--dishes.  I was intrigued by the title of the dish, and just had to try it in the spirit of solidarity.  (I was dining with a male colleague who shook his head and couldn't understand why the dish couldn't be called 'Cowhand Casserole' or something less, um, feminine.

Don't let the word 'casserole' turn you off; after all, isn't lasagna a casserole?  And don't we all love lasagna?  And mac and cheese?

The Cowgirl Casserole represents Wagner's love for Montana and her affinity for southwestern flavors.  I had this dish for lunch and doggie bagged most of it for dinner later that night.  (Wagner also slipped me a few real doggie bag goodies:  elk bones for my 100-pound dog, Maximus!) 

I've simplified Wagner's dish for the home cook.  It takes a few dishes and skillets and such, but is completely worth it.  I shared the results with neighbors, who were impressed.  Plus, I've frozen half the lot for later on--when the mercury dips back down to minus 22 degrees.  I'll be hungry, and I'm ready.

Wine Suggestion:  Try the 2004 Parducci Mendocino True Grit Petite Sirah, which is a big, bold, winter wine, with intense dark red fruit flavors.  Another choice?  Artesa 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from California.  This wine's black pepper, clove and spicy, smoky notes marry beautifully with the Cowgirl. 

Cowgirl Casserole

This hearty, rib-sticking baked pasta dish highlights Montana elk and Southwestern Spices.  It can be made several days in advance, it freezes beautifully, and can be reheated in either the microwave or conventional oven.   If you're serving kids, go easy on the spices.  On the other hand, if you like spicy fare, increase the spices and herbs.

Adapted from a recipe created by Executive Chef, Wendy Wagner, The Peaks Restaurant, Big Sky Resort, Montana.

Serves 8, but can be doubled to serve a crowd or to freeze for cold winter nights ahead.

2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 pound ground elk
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups beef broth
1 cup tomato puree
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bundle fresh cilantro (about 20 stems) tied with kitchen twine
1 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons chili powder
1¼ teaspoons ground cumin
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh marjoram leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil leaves
One 10-ounce package corn kernels, thawed (Chef Wagner prefers baby Asian corn; I like whole kernels.  Either one is fine.)
1 pound rigatoni
Olive oil, to prevent pasta from sticking
2 small or 1 extra-large egg
½ pound grated cheddar, Monterey Jack or Colby cheese or a mixture of all three
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro or cilantro micro greens to garnish, optional

1.  Lightly oil a 9 X 13-inch baking dish and set aside.

2.  Heat the canola oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat.  Add onions and cook until softened but not browned, about 5 to 10 minutes.  Add the elk and cook, stirring often, until browned, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.  Push the elk and onion mixture to one side of the skillet.  Add the minced garlic to the empty side of the skillet and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute or just until garlic releases its fragrance.  Do not overcook or garlic will be bitter.  Remove from heat and stir to blend.

3.  Transfer the elk mixture to a heavy soup pot.  Add the beef broth to the skillet and deglaze, then add the broth to the elk.  Add the tomato puree, tomato paste, cilantro bundle, oregano, coriander, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper.  Stir to blend, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, for 20 minutes.   Add the marjoram and basil and corn.  Season with salt and pepper.   Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.  (If you're in a hurry, spread the mixture into several shallow pans to cool the mixture quickly.) 

4.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  While the elk mixture cools, cook the pasta according to package directions; do not overcook the pasta, since it will continue to cook as it bakes in the oven.  Drain, then toss lightly with olive oil to prevent sticking.  Cool pasta to room temperature. Note:  cooling is important, otherwise the eggs will 'scramble' rather than help bind the casserole.

5.  When elk mixture and pasta are completely cool, remove the cilantro bundle and discard.  Combine the elk mixture and the pasta together in the soup pot.  In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and fold in half the cheese into the eggs.  Add the egg-cheese mixture to the pasta and toss very gently to blend.  Do not overmix or pasta may become mushy.  Transfer the mixture to the oiled baking dish and spread evenly. If you have more filling than will fit into the baking dish, put the excess filling into a smaller, lightly oiled casserole and bake as directed, below.

6.  Top the pasta mixture with the remaining cheese and bake for 30 minutes or until piping hot in the center.  (Note: If using a smaller casserole the dish may be done in 15 or 20 minutes depending on the depth and size of the casserole dish.)  Remove from the oven, use a spatula to serve onto individual plates.  Serve hot, topped with fresh cilantro.