Most nights, as many people do, my partner and I discuss dinner options. We have some different opinions about what's tasty, and we sometimes have to meet in the middle.
"What about a pasta bake with, like, a bechamel sauce instead of red?" I asked. He rolled his eyes; he hates creamy sauce.
"Why can't we just use red sauce?" he asked.
"Red sauce takes too long. It's already 5:30," I said.
So, no bechamel, no red sauce, but plenty of sausage in the fridge. What to do? Compromise.
This recipe is an altered version of a casserole I often prep in advance and store in the freezer for a desperate weeknight, but it can be made pretty simply as a regular dinner. Because it lacks sauce of any kind, but doesn't lack on cheese, the binding liquid is a simple pan sauce made with sherry vinegar and some starchy, salty pasta water.
That liquid commingles with the sausage and veggies, then slicks itself over the nearly al dente pasta, creating just enough moisture to allow it to fully cook in the oven, and enough moisture for the cheese to do its job, which is to create a creamy and crunchy assemblage of delicious edible textures. The bread crumbs call back to more creamy/traditional casseroles, which are often heavy on dairy.
This got the vote of approval from Mr. No Creamy Sauces — and from me. It's drier than it would be with a bechamel, but it's lovely, and it hits all the high points — a little spicy and fatty from the sausage, nice and starchy, perfect for a cool rainy night. However, next time he's away for dinnertime, I'll be making myself the creamiest mac and cheese I can as an act of protest.
NOT-SAUCY PASTA AND SAUSAGE BAKE
6 sausages or 1 pound ground sausage (I used a sweet/hot combo — highly recommend!)
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried sage
Salt and pepper
1 pound bag of spinach
1 pound pasta
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup reserved pasta water
3 cups shredded cheese, mozzarella, Parmesan and Gouda (or whatever other shredded cheese you would like to use)
1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 425 F. Heat large saucepan to high. Remove sausage from casings and mash into small bits, allowing sausage to fully cook and brown (skip the casings part if you're using ground sausage). Remove sausage and set aside. Turn heat to medium low.
Chop onion and garlic and add onion to pan, cooking 3 to 5 minutes until soft and beginning to brown. Add sage, spinach and garlic, and cook about five minutes longer.
Salt and boil a large pot of water, then cook pasta about 5 to 6 minutes until just approaching al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water, then drain pasta.
Add sausage, sherry vinegar and pasta water to the pan with onions and spinach. Adjust heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Add pasta and stir until well combined. Add half the cheese and stir, then once cheese is incorporated well, add the rest to the top and top with bread crumbs. Bake 30 minutes or until cheese on top is brown. Wait at least 10 minutes before serving.