Guys, I am in the weeds this month. After a summer of lazy, a summer of two vacations and a husband (eh, unpaid assistant) always around, making life fun and easy, a mess of busy (new job, work travel for him, book touring for me, a spate of solo parenting of each of us, new preschool, new babysitter, and very important birthday party allatonce) has descended on our recently idyllic lifestyle and, no, I am not handling it with the effortless grace you’ve come to expect from me. Quit laughing. Stop it. I could be effortless or graceful! I mean, there was that one time… Okay, fine. I’m handling it as predicted: with equal measures of bourbon and complaining on the internet. I never claimed to be a model human.
Once in a while, though, once in a sweet savior of a blue moon, I plan ahead and this time, it’s saving this page from flatlining, at least until I get my head back in the game. This dish is, in fact, one of my favorite new dinner recipes this year; we loved it so much that I found it agonizing to wait so long to tell you about it. But it didn’t feel like the right season to post it when I made it (late this past spring). I wanted to save it for what I considered a more chaotic and comfort-demanding time of year, like September (even if the 92 degree weather today mocks my best laid plans).
It started as a hunt for my own take on a baked ziti. Although I would never, ever turn it away if you brought some by my apartment at about 5:55 this afternoon (I would probably leap into your arms and kiss you, which might be awkward, so consider yourself warned), traditional American-Italian baked ziti has never been my favorite thing because I’ve never much cared for the texture of baked ricotta, which seems to be in every recipe. And, while I love tomato sauce in all formats, it always feels a little clashy against the green vegetables I insist make pasta-for-dinner acceptable any night of the week. No, I realized my dream baked ziti would probably not be ziti at all (I think other chunky pastas pick up sauce better), but a chunky, craggy deconstructed lasagna with all of the important parts played up — browned crunchy edges for miles, hearty chunks of sausage and thick green vegetables.
I made a big old pan of this before the last book tour, to help get the boys through the week. I made another one the week before we went to Rome, when we didn’t want to load up on groceries that would go to waste, and we brought the last portions to the airport, for a so-much-better-than-airplane dinner. I did not, unfortunately, stash some in my freezer before this week began but if you’re having a week or month like we are, or maybe it’s just getting cool enough where you are to consider rib-sticking but not gut-weighing food again, you should make this beast happen.
Related: This dish has some ingredients in common with Pasta with Garlicky Broccoli Rabe weeknight staple. Previously, in the baked pasta department: Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs, Lasagna Bolognese, Mushroom Lasagna and last year’s Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella
One year ago: Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella
Two years ago: Red Wine Chocolate Cake (and my sorta-9/11 story with a happy ending)
Three years ago: Grape Foccacia with Rosemary
Four years ago: Nectarine Galette
Five years ago: Marinated Eggplant with Capers and Mint
Six years ago: Hoisin Barbecue Sauce
Baked Pasta with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage
Important: This is my dream of a baked pasta dish — not too heavy, not to rich or gooey, tons of crunchy edges. As you might see in the photos above, it’s on the firm side. If you’d like a baked pasta with more sauce, which I expect most of you will, you’ll want to use 1 1/2 times the bechamel and cheese below.
Broccoli rabe (also called raab or rapini) is a leafy green vegetable with buds that somewhat resemble broccoli. It’s slightly bitter and holds up well to cooking. If you can’t find it, regular broccoli or broccolini will work here as well; they will only need 3 and 2 minutes respectively of boiling time with the pasta to keep it semi-crisp. If you’d like to make this without meat, the sausage can definitely be omitted. You could add some lightly sauteed chunky brown mushrooms for extra bulk, as well.
The pasta shape I used here is called toscani and it’s from the brand Seggiano. I have found it at Whole Foods and, if you’re in the East Village, Commodities Natural Market on 1st Ave. (plus I’m sure other stores). When I can’t get, it I use Barilla’s similar campanelle or seriously any chunky pasta you like to bake with.
Pasta and assembly
1 pound chunky pasta of your choice (I love bell shapes; see above for details)
1 bundle broccoli rabe (see above for options), stems and leaves cut into 1-inch segments
1 pound Italian sausage (sweet or spicy pork or chicken), casings removed
2/3 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
6 ounces mozzarella, cut into small cubes
2 cups milk, full fat is ideal
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
Few gratings fresh nutmeg
Cook the pasta and rabe: Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and five minutes before its cooking time is up, add the broccoli rabe. It will seem like too much for the water, but with a stir or two, the rabe should wilt and cook alongside the pasta. Drain the broccoli rabe and pasta together and place in a large bowl.
Cook your sausage: Meanwhile, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, wide saucepan (you will use this for the bechamel in a few minutes; you could also use your pasta pot, once it is drained) over medium heat. When hot, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it starts to brown, about five minutes. Remove with slotted spoon or spatula, leaving any fat behind. Eyeball the drippings (pork sausage will leave some; chicken usually does not) — use one tablespoon less butter next if it looks like there’s a tablespoon there. Any less, don’t worry about adjusting the butter.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Make the bechamel: Melt your butter in same saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add your flour and stir it into the butter until smooth. Cook the mixture together for a minute, stirring constantly. Pour in a small drizzle of your milk, whisking constantly into the butter-flour mixture until smooth. Continue to drizzle a very small amount at a time, whisking constantly. Once you’ve added a little over half of your milk, you’ll find that you have more of a thick sauce or batter, and you can start adding the milk in larger splashes, being sure to keep mixing. Once all of the milk is added, add the salt, garlic, nutmeg, and few grinds of black pepper, and bring the mixture to a lower simmer and cook it, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
Assemble and bake: Add the sausage and bechamel to the bowl with the pasta and broccoli rabe. Stir in mozzarella and half of grated parmesan or pecorino until combined. Pour into a lasagna pan, deep 9×13-inch baking dish* or 3-quart casserole dish and coat with remaining parmesan or pecorino. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the edges and craggy points are nicely bronzed.
Eat warm. Reheat as needed.
* I love this so much, I’ve bought two, and it’s usually crazy inexpensive.