I made this recipe for the first time when I was staying with friends in Boston last month, and it was both simple and delicious. As such, I made it a second time last weekend, when my parents hosted 40 people at their home for my grandparents’ birthday party (yes, they were born a day apart and thus share their party every year). It’s the perfect meal for anything from an intimate dinner to a large group, as it you can do it ahead of time and its easy to serve, but it still seems a little fancier than a lasagna or boring casserole-type dish.
I found broccoli rabe without incident the first time, but not the second – so when I quadrupled the recipe for the birthday party I used swiss chard instead. Both were great, but Smitten Kitchen suggests regular broccoli or brocolini if you can’t find rabe; I would think any hearty green would work as well (next time I might try kale). The only time consuming part of the dish is stemming and chopping the broccoli rabe/chard, everything else is pretty quick and easy.
When I made it the first time, I followed the recipe exactly, except that I only added sausage to half (recipe makes one 9 x 13 casserole, but can easily be split into two 8 x 8s). SK lists proportions for a “light” amount of sauce, and recommends you multiply them by 1.5 for a “heavier” sauced dish. I did that, and did not find it overly saucy at all, so that’s what I list below as I really can’t imagine less sauce would be enough. But I suppose its all personal preference – you can check out her version in the link. I also found the original version to be pretty garlicky, although I don’t love garlic so it could be just me. Regardless, when I made it a second time I roasted the garlic (a whole head, drizzled in olive oil and wrapped in foil, at 400 degrees for about half an hour). I then used the same number of cloves called for (3 per batch), and found the garlic flavor to be much more subtle. Again, just personal preference. My friend Lindsay made this the other night and added minced garlic in with the sausage when she cooked it – same idea.
Finally, when I made four batches for the party, I did four separate casseroles so that I could accommodate as many preferences as possible – three different types of sausage (sweet, spicy, and chicken) and then one vegetarian. When I had the vegetarian version in Boston I really thought it could use something, so this time I roasted a butternut squash. SK suggests mushrooms would be another good alternative – but the squash got rave reviews even from the meat eaters, and seems pretty perfect for this time of year.
Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens, adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Pasta and Assembly
1 lb. campanelle, or any chunky pasta you like
1 bundle broccoli rabe, swiss chard, or green of your choice (the greens will cook down a lot, so what looks like a ton raw ends up being not that much)
1 lb. Italian sausage (sweet or spicy pork or chicken), casings removed (or one butternut squash)
1 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes
3 cups whole milk (I used half whole and half 2% the second time and found it to be a little less rich – in a good way)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/8 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (I used a lot)
3 cloves garlic, minced – if roasted, I just gave them a rough smash and chop
Small sprinkle of nutmeg
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions, add broccoli rabe five minutes before pasta is to be finished (if using chard, wait until two minutes before cooking time is up; if using another green, you’ll want it to cook for a lesser time the more delicate it is, or longer the heartier it is – i.e. broccoli would also be five minutes, spinach would be one minute). Drain pasta and greens and set aside in a large bowl.
Brown your sausage in a small amount of olive oil. If you’re making the vegetarian version, peel, seed, and dice a medium-sized butternut squash. You can buy it pre-chopped almost anywhere, but its kind of fun to do it yourself and it really doesn’t take much time. Toss it with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and roast on a well-greased (or parchment-lined) baking sheet at 400 degrees for about half an hour, turning once or twice. If it gets a little crispy, like mine did (as evidenced in the photo above), that’s ok. Either the sausage or the squash can be done ahead of time, and it will make putting the casserole together that much quicker.
To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and stir until smooth, then cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add a small amount of the milk and whisk until combined. Continue to add milk in very small amounts, whisking the whole time – this is where a plastic, flat-bottomed whisk comes in really handy. Once about half of the milk is added and combined, you can add the other half more quickly. Once all the milk is added and the mixture is smooth, add salt, pepper, garlic, and nutmeg and let simmer for about ten minutes (I always worry that mine won’t thicken properly, and thus turn the burner up for about a minute before I turn it down to simmer – no idea if it helps or not but it makes me feel better – regardless, do that at your own risk). Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
Finally, add mozzarella, half the parmesan, sausage (or squash), and béchamel to the bowl with the pasta and greens; toss to coat everything with the sauce. Pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 or 3-quart casserole dish, sprinkle the remaining parmesan on top of the pasta, and bake at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.