Photographing casseroles is just plain hard. I revert to dressing it up with some of my favorite things from the kitchen, like this set from Anthropologie (thanks, mom!).
But, it's not short on prep. It's a bit of a choreographed dance, and once you do it a few times, you get how to multi-task this into one amazing dish. Also, I use marinara sauce from the jar. So, that's how we get this done on a timer.
I was inspired to try this from my good friend Michelle, who is one amazing cook. She made a smiliar dish for a big holiday get together a few years ago, and it's taken me this long to find a method that really works for me, which meant learning how to make bechamel sauce really, really good. It's not hard, but like risotto, bechamel needs some attention (but good news! it's quicker than risotto!). You can't walk away from it. You give it love and it will give it right back to you in the form of a smooth and delicious sauce that is a marriage made perfect with marinara.
Enter Smitten Kitchen's baked pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage. When I saw the recipe last fall, I knew that I could use it as my base and to it, add a dressed-up red sauce... from the jar, which is something we do once a week around this house. To the red sauce, I add sauteed onion, ground turkey and sausage, which is what Michelle recommended, and I love the combination. The sausage gives the ground turkey a good, flavorful kick, but you could certainly make this with just one meat or the other (or no meat, of course!).
This fancy casserole is totally dinner party-worthy, especially since it's make-ahead friendly, which is a deal-breaker for me. You can make it all early in the day, and then bake it off just before you're ready to serve.
Here's what I use:
9x13-inch baking dish
One pound of really ruffle-y pasta (my favorite is creste di gallo, which you can find at specialty markets)
One large yellow onion, diced
One pound lean ground turkey
8 oz. mild Italian chicken sausage, casings removed and broken into small pieces
One 24-once jar of your favorite marinara (lately, I'm into Barilla Tomato & Basil)
One big bunch of fresh spinach, chopped (or any leafy green of your choice; I've used kale and chard)
Bechamel sauce ingredients: see Smitten Kitchen's recipe
3 oz. mozzarella, small diced (add more if you're a cheese lover)
2/3 cup grated parmesan
The quick, 3-step version is this:
1. Multi-task away: Cook the pasta (in one pot) and make your red meat sauce (in another) at the same time.
2. Make the bechamel.
3. Combine all three together - the pasta, the red sauce and the bechamel - in a giant baking dish, add the cheese and then bake.
The extended version:
1. Boil pasta, drain and throw it into a 9x13-inch baking dish (that you will use for the entire dish). Set aside.
1a. While the pasta water is heating up, you could dice the onion and break up the sausage. Just a thought.
1b. While your pasta is boiling, add olive oil to a large saute pan and cook onion until just translucent. Add ground turkey (with a healthy sprinkle of salt and freshly ground black pepper), breaking it up as you add to the pan, and then add sausage. Continue to break up the meat and stir occasionally (I find a fork works best for this) as you cook it all together until meat is just cooked through and then add jar of sauce. Let it simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, and just before you're ready to assemble the entire dish, stir in the chopped spinach to just barely wilt it.
2. Last big step: make bechamel sauce, just like Smitten Kitchen says. Once it's perfect, take your red sauce and add it to the pasta in the baking dish, and then the bechamel and stir everything together with a giant spoon (this one from West Elm is my absolute favorite, another winner from my mom).
3. Add the mozzarella and half of the parmesan cheese as you're stirring everything together to combine.
4. Top the dish with the remaining parm.
5. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 20-30 minutes, until the dish is bubbly and the pasta is beautifully browned.
Not like you need more carbs here, but I usually serve this with crostini to help scoop up all the goodness. You kind of need more than just a fork.
Was that overly complicated? I hope not! Is anyone making anything like this on chilly days? Do tell!