Pasta’s always a great choice for entertaining: it’s inexpensive, generally foolproof, and everybody likes it. The one drag (unless you have one of those enviably open-and-airy kitchens) is at some point you’ll have to excuse yourself from conversation and cocktails to boil off a few pounds of the stuff, sauce it and serve à la minute. Not so today, friends!
This do-ahead baked pasta of sturdy orecchiette (“little ears”, a perfect shape for scooping up chunky sauces), savory crumbles of spicy pork sausage and lightly bitter broccoli rabe (swap with spinach if you prefer) doesn’t have the heavy sauces or molten layers of cheese of many baked pastas, just a touch of ricotta and drizzle of olive oil to pull all the components together. It’s hearty but not heavy, an unfussy dish that can stand proudly on its own as a main or share the stage as a smaller course. Use your very best olive oil for finishing (it’ll go a long way here), serve with a flurry of grated Pecorino, and enjoy that pre-dinner Negroni with your guests.
Orecchiette al Forno
adapted from A Platter of Figs by David Tanis, 2008; serves about 4 as a main dish
- 1 lb dried orecchiette pasta
- olive oil
- 1 lb broccoli rabe or spinach, washed well and stems removed
- 3/4 lb spicy Italian-style pork or chicken sausage (fresh)
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
- red pepper flakes
- 6 oz fresh ricotta
- Pecornio-Romano cheese
Put on a large pot of very well-salted water to boil. Cook the pasta until very al dente, about 9-10 minutes, depending on the brand you’ve bought. With a slotted spoon or sieve, transfer to a rimmed baking sheet to cool; drizzle with olive oil to keep from sticking. Bring the water back up to a boil and blanch the broccoli rabe or spinach for 1-2 minutes. Drain over a colander; roughly chop the greens.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large skillet, brown the sausage, breaking up into crumbles with a wooden spoon. Add the sausage to the empty pasta pot; drain off the rendered fat and discard. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and over medium heat, cook the garlic for 2 minutes. Add the rosemary, red pepper flakes and the greens. Season with salt, toss to combine and take off the heat. Add the greens and pasta to the pasta pot and gently mix to combine. Add the ricotta, a healthy grating of Pecorino, a bit of salt, and mix again.
Butter a shallow baking dish and transfer the pasta mixture. (You can hold the pasta at this stage; keep at room temperature for a few hours before finishing.) Grate Pecorino over top. Bake, loosely covered with foil, for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5 minutes more. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with additional Pecorino, if desired.
Note: to double the recipe, put on two separate pots of water to avoid overcrowding the pasta. If you can’t find orecchiette, substitute little pasta shells (conchigliette), gnochetti, or fusilli.