Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Baked Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Italian Sausage, & Ricotta

The inspiration for the recipe I'm posting today came from a "speedy" baked pasta that caught my eye in the current issue of Food & Wine. There isn't anything terribly unusual about the recipe, but it is just the kind of thing I like to eat.  A baked pasta in a classic Italian-American style, it is a simple and appealing combination of pasta, tomato sauce, browned ground beef, ricotta and mozzarella. As I glanced over the ingredient list, it occurred to me that by using some of the tomato sauce in my freezer (made at the height of tomato season last summer) that I could make this into an even easier dish.

As it turned out, I had all the necessary ingredients on hand for this pasta. Not only did I have homemade sauce, I had Italian sausage in my freezer—which I think is a much better choice than the ground beef any way. I always keep a variety of pasta shapes and as luck would have it, I also had Ricotta, Fontina (preferable to Mozzarella, in my opinion) and Parmesan. I share this information not to brag about the contents of my pantry, but rather to point out the benefits of maintaining a well-stocked pantry.

I occasionally teach a class called The Well-Stocked Pantry, and one of the things I emphasize is that everyone's personal well-stocked pantry will look different. Your aim should be to fill your pantry with the things that go into making the foods you love to eat. Then, when you run across a recipe in a magazine or cookbook that hits all of your favorite flavor buttons, it is likely you will already have many of the ingredients that you need.

If you choose to include homemade things (tomato sauce, stock, different kinds of pesto, compound butter, frozen vegetables and fruits from the farmers' market, etc.) in your pantry, stocking it will require some advance planning and the willingness to put in the work ahead. But you will always be glad in the end.

The tomato sauce in my freezer is a good example. I still remember the moment at the farmers' market last summer, standing in front of the table overflowing with vine-ripened tomatoes, thinking that I really didn't have time to make tomato sauce. I was getting ready to leave town and my schedule was packed. I also knew that I was looking at the peak of the crop...if I didn't take the time that weekend to make some sauce, I wouldn't have any for the winter. So, I found the time to do it. And as we ate dinner last night, I was so grateful that I did. With all of the ingredients from my pantry at the ready, all I needed to do was brown the sausage, boil the pasta and layer it all into a baking dish. While it baked, I tossed a salad. Dinner was so easy. But even better than that, it tasted really good.

Even if you didn't make any tomato sauce last summer (or the sauce you made is all gone), I would still encourage you to make this dish if it appeals to you. A quick tomato sauce made from a can of Italian Plum tomatoes (along with some garlic and/or onions) can be a fine thing...just different from one made of vine ripes. Of course, the dish won't be quite as "speedy" if you have to make the sauce the same day, but I think you will like it so much that you won't care.

The leftovers made an excellent lunch....

Baked Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Italian Sausage & Ricotta

1 T. olive oil
6 oz. Italian Sausage, casings removed
2 c. Tomato sauce (see notes)
8 oz. Penne or Fusilli
4 oz Fontina, coarsely grated
1 oz. Parmesan, finely grated
6 oz. whole milk ricotta, seasoned to taste with salt, pepper & nutmeg
2 oz. Fontina or low-moisture Mozzarella, coarsely grated (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over moderate heat. Crumble the sausage and add to the pan. Cook, breaking up the larger pieces with a wooden spoon, until browned and cooked through—about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. If the sauce seems thin, simmer until slightly thickened. 

Taste and correct the seasoning.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. When the pasta is almost al dente (pastas that will be baked should be a bit firmer than those that will be sauced and served right away), drain.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine. Add 4 oz. of the Fontina and half of the Parmesan and fold in just until evenly distributed—the cheese does not have to melt. Transfer half of the mixture to a buttered 1 1/2  quart shallow baking dish. Daub half of the ricotta over the pasta.

Add the remaining pasta to the dish and daub the remaining ricotta over all. Top with the remaining Parmesan and Fontina (if using).

Topped with Parmesan only
Topped with a mixture of Parmesan and Fontina/Mozzarella

Transfer to a 400° oven and bake until hot through, tinged with brown on the top and bubbling just around the edges—about 20 to 25 minutes. Serves 3 to 4.

Topped with Parmesan only

Topped with mixture of Parmesan and Fontina/Mozzarella

  • This recipe will double easily.  Use a 3-quart shallow baking dish (a 13- by 9-inch is perfect).
  • I have not tried it, but I imagine that a pretty fine vegetarian version of this could be made by substituting 8 oz. of mushrooms for the sausage.  Sauté them in a little olive oil, add the tomato sauce and proceed with the recipe.  
  • If you don't have sauce in your freezer, you can of course make one.  To make 2 cups of winter tomato sauce, you will need a 28 oz. can of Italian Plum tomatoes packed in juice, a small onion (4 to 6 oz.)—finely diced, 3 or 4 cloves of finely minced garlic and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.  Warm the olive oil in a shallow saucepan set over medium heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden—about 10 to 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant—about 2 minutes.  Pass the tomatoes, along with their juice through a food mill fitted with the coarse disc (or pulse in the food processor or simply break up with your hands).   Add the tomatoes along with salt & freshly ground pepper to taste. Simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened—about 30 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.  You may of course add herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, etc.—add with the tomatoes).  If you prefer a speedier sauce, skip the onions and just start with the garlic in the olive oil.

1 comment:

Paige said...

That's OK Chris...nothing that your next trip to the store won't remedy :)