Everyone has a few quirks about the food they eat, and our family is no exception. Three out of the four people in our family (myself included) avoid mayonnaise, sour cream, aioli, and any sort of white, creamy condiment meant for savory food like it’s our job. No mayonnaise on our sandwiches, ranch on our salads, and certainly no sour cream in our burritos. As a result, I’ve never really cared for pasta dishes with creamy sauces. A big pour of cream mutes all the lively flavors the recipe worked so hard to achieve, and rather than tasting the al dente noodles, you’re left with an overwhelming slick of dairy in every bite. Because of this, I generally avoid baked pasta dishes, which more often than not laced with creamy béchamel sauce. Or at least I avoided them until I discovered this dish for baked penne.
It starts off with a generous pan of mushrooms and onions seasoned with oregano—which I used to think was an overused herb reserved for mediocre pizza parlors, but now know adds a serious punch of flavor when called into actions—that creates just enough sauce to keep the pasta from drying out. A little blanched spinach provides some greenery, and small cubes of a flavorful cheese provide richness without a creamy sauce. Along with a pot of penne (undercooked by just a hair on the stove to prevent mushiness after baking), you have a one dish meal that can be prepared well in advance. Just throw it in the oven with a sprinkle of good parmesan on top until golden brown, and dinner is served.
I don’t have a picture of the pasta once it was baked because I was at work until late in the evening and didn’t get to see the finished dish before it was dug into, but that one missing picture of a steaming hot pan of pasta with pockets of melted cheese shouldn’t prevent you from making this pasta. It has everything you would want in a pasta dish, from al dente pasta to caramelized onions, without any sort of (dreaded) creamy sauce.
Baked Penne with Spinach and Mushrooms
Serves 4 generously
Adapted from Herbivoracious by Michael Natkin
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to grease the pan
½ yellow onion, thinly slices
2 lbs. crimini mushrooms, quartered
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons dried oregano
10 oz. baby spinach
1 lb penne
Kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 oz. semi-soft cheese with a good flavor, cut into ¼ inch cubes (I used Toscano, and other good choices are Fontina, Asiago, and Comte.)
½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Brush a 13 x 9 inch baking pan with olive oil and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350F.
Heat the two tablespoons of olive oil in a 12 inch non-stick skillet over medium high heat until hot. Add the onion and mushrooms and sauté for 8-10 minutes, until the mushrooms have begun to release their water and have slightly shrunk in size. Add the garlic and the sea salt and sauté for another 10-15 minutes, until the mushrooms are golden brown but are not yet completely dry. Add the red pepper flakes and oregano, then sauté for 30-60 seconds until fragrant, then set aside.
Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot, then add the spinach and blanch until wilted, about 30 seconds. Remove the spinach from the water with tongs or a kitchen spider, and set in a colander to drain. Squeeze out the excess water from the spinach either with your hands or a pair of tongs. Add the penne and 1 tablespoon of kosher or sea salt to the boiling water, and cook until just 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot. Add the spinach, mushroom mixture, and the cubed cheese to the pasta along with the pepper, and toss to combine. Transfer the pasta to the prepared baking pan, and sprinkle the parmesan cheese in an even layer on top.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown on top. (If you would like to prepare this dish ahead of time, prepare it up through step 3 and store it covered in the refrigerator up to 2 days ahead of time, then increase the baking time to 40-45 minutes to ensure that the center of the pasta is hot before serving.