Monday, September 26, 2011

Baked Penne with Sausage & Creamy Ricotta

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Now that the crisp and cool temps are here, the idea of comfort foods are what I crave. A popular comfort food to many is pasta and rightfully so. Pasta is one of those dishes that seems to hit the spot, leaving you with a satisfying carb coma. This Baked Penne with Sausage & Creamy Ricotta did exactly that. It was deliciously filling with pockets of creamy ricotta cheese, bites of Italian sausage, all blended with penne in a homemade tomato sauce. 

When I switched to a gluten free lifestyle less than a month ago, I thought my pasta days were over. I knew there were alternatives out there, such as pasta made from rice, quinoa and other non-gluten ingredients. I was just so skeptical because it wasn't wheat or semolina based pasta... and I wasn't sure that I would even like gluten free pasta. Well, I finally gave gluten free pasta a try and wow... I'm a fan. I specifically used brown rice pasta for this dish but of course, you're welcome to use regular or whole wheat penne. In fact, you can use any short pasta for this dish including farfalle, macaroni, ziti, shells, etc.

The best part of the dish is the ricotta and sausage. It really elevated the dish above the usual baked pasta casserole. The recipe makes a full 9x13 pan but I ended up making 2 smaller baking dishes of this recipe; one we ate and one we froze for later. To freeze, prepare the recipe

Baked Penne with Sausage & Creamy Ricotta
recipe adapted from Food & Wine

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound hot or sweet Italian fennel sausage, casings removed
1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground fennel
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound penne (I used gluten free brown rice penne)
3 cups ricotta 
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


Preheat the oven to 400°.

In a large saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the minced garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about 15-30 seconds. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up the meat, until browned, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato puree, water, sugar, bay leaf and fennel. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.

Meanwhile, cook the penne in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.

Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the meat sauce. Transfer the remaining sauce to the pot with the pasta. Toss to combine.

Spoon the pasta into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour the reserved meat sauce over the pasta and dollop large spoonfuls of the ricotta on top. Gently fold some of the ricotta into the pasta; don't overmix—you should have pockets of ricotta. Scatter the mozzarella on top and sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Bake the pasta in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until bubbling and golden on top. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving.

*Make Ahead/Freezer Meal: Prepare the recipe above but spoon the pasta into a freezer- and oven-safe container. Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the pasta and dollop large spoonfuls of the ricotta on top. Gently fold some of the ricotta into the pasta; don't overmix—you should have pockets of ricotta. Scatter the mozzarella on top and sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cover and freeze. When ready to serve, defrost and bake the pasta in a 400 degree preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until bubbling and golden on top. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving.

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