- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It’s getting to be that time of year — sports activities, family gatherings, Halloween. Sometimes I feel like a juggler with spinning plates. So what could be better than a great baked pasta dish that is best made ahead of time?

All that is required before serving is to bake the dish. As a child, baked pasta meant cheesy lasagna or saucy ziti, basically a haze of cheese and heavy tomato sauce. This baked pasta is a fresh, innovative version.

I like to make pasta casseroles that include vegetables and chicken or meat, if possible, so that it is, indeed, a main course. All you need to accompany this dish is a green salad and, if you want, some garlic bread.

For years I have made this pasta dish for my daughter and her friends before they embark on their night of tricks and treats. It has almost become a tradition. But since she is now 22, I find other times to serve this with equally happy results.

My friend Ellen Rose of the Cooks Library in Los Angeles claims that she sells my book “Seriously Simple” just for this recipe. In fact, it is such a hit that I have adapted it for my latest book, “Seriously Simple Holidays,” with the addition of red and yellow peppers and arugula. What makes this pasta dish so requested? I think it is the combination of flavors.

A good-quality bottled tomato marinara sauce helps cut down the cooking time, and the pesto adds a snappy layering of flavor to the sauce. Spicy sausage and the addition of fresh spinach give the pasta color and a fresh light taste. This is a wonderful one-dish meal for holidays and large gatherings. A robust Zinfandel or Chianti would make a nice beverage choice.

Help is on the way:

• Place the baking dish on a cookie sheet to avoid dripping on the oven.

• Bake the pasta in a wide, shallow baking dish so there is more topping.

• This can be prepared 2 days ahead through step 4, covered and refrigerated. Remove from the refrigerator ½ hour before baking. (It may need a few more minutes to bake if it is cold.)

• Drain the pasta while it is still firm to the bite since it will continue to cook as it bakes.

• Bake the pasta uncovered so the top browns.

• Divide this mixture into 2 smaller baking dishes and freeze one for future use.

Baked pasta with spicy tomato and sausage sauce

1 pound hot Italian sausage, casing removed

1 onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 26-ounce jars favorite marinara sauce

6 tablespoons favorite basil pesto or store-bought

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Water

1 pound penne pasta

Oil, for pan

½ pound smoked Gouda or mozzarella, cut into small dice

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

6 ounce bag baby spinach leaves

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the sausage meat. Cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon as it cooks, for about 5 minutes or until no pinkness remains. Add the onion and saute another 5 minutes or until softened, mixing around to evenly cook the onion.

Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the marinara sauce and simmer on medium heat another 10 minutes, or until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the pesto, salt and pepper and mix to combine. Taste for seasoning. Reserve.

Meanwhile, add salt to large pot of boiling water. Add pasta and cook over high heat until al dente. Drain well.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Spoon a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the pan. In a large bowl, combine the pasta with the remaining sauce, cubed smoked cheese, 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese and spinach leaves, mixing well to combine. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese on top of the pasta. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the casserole begins to bubble and the cheese is browned. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Herbed garlic cheese bread

½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 medium garlic cloves, minced

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil

½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1/4 teaspoon fresh oregano, or a pinch of dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 large loaf French or sourdough French bread

Combine the butter, garlic, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, basil, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper in small mixing bowl. Blend well.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Slice the bread in half lengthwise and spread each side with half of the mixture. Sprinkle the two halves with the remaining Parmesan cheese.

Slice the bread halves into 2-inch-thick slices about 3/4 of the way through. Make sure you haven’t cut all the way through, and that the crust is still holding the bread together. Wrap each half tightly in aluminum foil. Place the loaves on a cookie sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the foil wrap and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

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