Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Three-Cheese Baked Pasta with Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage

Not unlike my typical sojourns to the market, yesterday's visit was made sans a grocery list. Having been away for a few days, I knew we needed some of the basics...milk, eggs, bread, yogurt, produce...and I knew I needed to think about dinners (for at least a few nights). However, while I recognize the benefits of a well-stocked pantry, I am definitely one of those run-to-the-store-several-times-a-week people. It's a habit I acquired while living in Europe (more than ten years ago, so clearly not a good excuse!)...and continue today. The odd thing is I'm a detail person and a lover of lists so this lack of planning when it comes to grocery shopping is very out of character for me.

Though initially I found the need to shop nearly every day in Europe somewhat aggravating (clearly in the mindset of "how do you ever get anything else done when you're always running to the store?")...I do admit that it didn't take long to change my way of thinking.

The stores in our little village in Holland were miniscule compared to our mega-stores here. Instead of a mile-long cereal aisle, there were just a few shelves (and limited variety). I remember keeping things pretty simple on our first excursions, realizing that we needed time to figure out the language a bit more in order to decipher the labels and packaging that didn't provide pictorial hints. But it didn't take long to venture out from our comfort zone or one-stop shopping. While we'd hit our little market for lots of our essentials, we quickly adapted to outings that oftentimes included two or three additional slager, de kaaswinkel, de visboer, of de bakkerij (for meat, cheese, fish, and baked goods, respectively). Then, of course, there were the village market days when fresh farm produce, flowers, meats, and other delicacies were brought in. Strangely enough, shopping quickly became a treat of sorts. Everything was so fresh; plans for dinner could be based on whatever looked good that particular day; you never had so much to put away that unloading the groceries was ever a task; and, it was a bit of a social connection. Whether you felt like it or not, you needed to get out, about, and among the people. There's a lot to be said for this social aspect, particularly if you are new to a culture and trying to acclimate yourself...and your family. forward to now and not much has changed. The environment is a bit different but I still make far too many trips to the market in any given week for it to be considered an economical or organized approach. I do, however, try to make some sort of list. That being said, I admit that I kind of like my unencumbered approach to shopping and meal planning. It's so unlike how I conduct the rest of my life that I suppose it's entertaining (or therapeutic?). Whatever the rationale, as long as I come home with what I need I figure these brief reprieves from staying on task will continue. And while I feel totally happy and content figuring things out as I go, it may seem a bit scattered to those who are truly adamant about making lists (and not veering from them).

I usually hit the produce section first. Yesterday I quickly snapped up some organic baby artichokes. I hesitated momentarily as artichokes are kind of like my version of brussel sprouts to my husband. He'll eat them, or happily move them to the side, but they aren't his favorite. I happen to LOVE them...fresh, canned, frozen, marinated, whatever! Thinking I would hold off an artichoke dish for later in the week, I decided to grab some veggies for a great, satisfying and flavorful Thai soup. Given our quick return to winter weather this past week, it seemed like a good idea until I realized that this, again, was more in my own zone of favorites. Fortunately, a swing along the meat counter triggered my recall of this recipe. It's meaty and satisfying...perfect for a cool, dreary day...and it's cheesy and wonderfully flavorful. (A bit of a scattered approach, perhaps, but three meals did get planned and I can always make a list next time.)

I particularly like using a ground sweet Italian chicken sausage in this dish but I've used other Italian sausages in the past to great success. It's really just a matter of personal preference. The same goes with your selection of cheeses. I like using at least three different varieties and have found that mozzarella, fontina, and parmesan work beautifully together. And I recommend selecting a more robust fontina (if you go with this cheese) as it serves as a nice complement to the more mild flavor of the mozzarella.

While this dish may hold a tad more calories than an artichoke sauté or Thai soup, it is definitely a family favorite. You can always have salad tomorrow! And...the really nice part of this dish is it comes together very quickly, which is particularly appealing if your lack of a list or plan results in a longer market visit than you may have intended.

Three-Cheese Baked Pasta with Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage
serves 4 to 6

3/4 pound penne rigate pasta (I used an organic durum semolina)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups sweet yellow onion, sliced (1 medium onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound sweet Italian chicken sausage, ground
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 28-ounce can whole Roma tomatoes (I used a San Marzano tomato)
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 cups low-moisture mozzarella cheese, grated
1 cup fontina cheese, grated (recommend a robust variety)
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Bring pot of water to boil for pasta. When ready, add a generous handful of salt to water and drop in pasta. Cook for 9 to 11 minutes, until al dente. Remove from heat, drain, and set aside.
3. While pasta is cooking, add olive oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until onion is soft. Move onion to sides of pan and drop ground sausage into pan, breaking it up as it sautés and browns.

Add salt and pepper to flavor meat. Once nicely browned (about 7 to 10 minutes), reincorporate the onion and garlic mixture.

Add tomatoes and break them up to incorporate into the mixture. Add basil and oregano. Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Sauté mixture for another 2 to 5 minutes, on low heat, to allow flavors to meld a bit. Remove from heat.
4. Lightly spray baking dish with olive oil. Ladle two spoonfuls of tomato sauce into bottom of dish. Layer half of pasta over top. Ladle half of remaining tomato sauce over top of first pasta layer. Sprinkle half of three cheeses over top of tomato sauce layer. Repeat with another layer each of remaining pasta, sauce, and cheeses.

Place in oven and bake, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and bubbly.

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