Seriously Simple

Make-ahead baked pasta is perfect for Election Night

October 30, 2012 

Election Night Pasta with Spicy Tomato and Sausage Sauce.

NOEL BARNHURST

  • Election Night Pasta w/ Spicy Tomato & Sausage Sauce 1 pound hot Italian sausage, casing removed 1 onion, finely chopped 3 garlic cloves, minced 2 (26-ounce) jars favorite marinara sauce Salt and freshly ground black pepper 6 tablespoons favorite homemade or store-bought basil pesto 1 pound penne pasta 6 ounce bag baby spinach leaves 1/2 pound smoked Gouda or mozzarella, cut into small dice 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese HEAT a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the sausage meat. Cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon as it cooks, for about 5 minutes or until no pinkness remains. Add the onion and saute another 5 minutes or until softened, mixing around to evenly cook the onion. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomato sauce and simmer on medium heat another 10 minutes, or until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the pesto, salt and pepper, and mix to combine. Taste for seasoning. Reserve. ADD salt to large pot of boiling water. Add pasta and cook over high heat until al dente. Drain well. PREHEAT the oven to 375. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Spoon over a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the pan. COMBINE the pasta with the remaining sauce, cubed smoked cheese, 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese and spinach leaves, mixing well in a large bowl. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese on top of the pasta. BAKE for about 30 minutes or until the casserole begins to bubble and the cheese is browned. Yield: Serves 6 to 8.

At this time of year, there are nights when we can’t be distracted from our televisions by the need to prepare a meal. Sports events are a major culprit here, but in my household another is Election Night.

So what’s a cook to do on nights like these? I recommend a pasta dish that is made ahead and only needs to be baked just before serving. This baked pasta is a fresh innovation on the heavy tomato and cheese casseroles of my childhood.

I like to make pasta casseroles that include vegetables and chicken or meat, if possible, so that it is indeed a main course. You can alter this by using cut-up chicken instead of the sausage, if you prefer. All that is needed to accompany the pasta course is a fresh green salad.

A good quality bottled tomato marinara sauce helps to cut the cooking time, and the pesto adds a snappy layering of flavor to the sauce.

Spicy sausage and the addition of fresh spinach give the pasta color and a fresh, light counterpoint of flavor.

A robust Zinfandel or Chianti would make a nice beverage choice. For dessert? Pick up some red and blue cookies from your bakery so all will be represented.

Tasty tips

• Place the baking dish on a cookie sheet to avoid dripping on the oven.

• Bake the pasta in a wide, shallow baking dish so there is more topping.

• This can be prepared 2 days ahead through step 4, covered and refrigerated. Remove from the refrigerator 1/2 hour before baking. (It may need a few more minutes to bake if it is cold.)

• Drain the pasta while it is still firm to the bite since it will continue to cook as it bakes.

• Bake the pasta uncovered so the top will brown.

• Divide this mixture into 2 smaller baking dishes and freeze one for future use.

Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking and the author of “Seriously Simple Parties.” www.seriouslysimple.com

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