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Year of the Noodle: Week 6

A snowy weekend spent in the mountains begged for a baked pasta dish.  We spent last weekend in Steamboat Springs along with my sister and her boyfriend, and I volunteered to make noodle dish while we were there.  With no idea how well outfitted the kitchen of our rental condo would be, I had a few concerns about pulling this one off.  But as it turned out, this recipe is delightfully easy and absolutely fabulous.

Even if you think gorgonzola has too strong of a flavor, I encourage you to go with it.  The intensity becomes more subtle once it mixes with the bechamel sauce and spinach, and provides that nice pop of flavor.  If you’re dead set against it, I suppose a gouda or gruyere could work, but probably wouldn’t be quite as tasty.  Regardless, choose your cheese and make this recipe – it’s so good.

Baked Ziti with Gorgonzola and Spinach

Ingredients
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups Classic Béchamel (recipe below), hot
  • 4 ounces full-fat Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (about 2/3 cup)
  • 1 pound flat-leaf spinach
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • Salt
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 pound ziti
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
For Bechamel
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Directions
To make Bechamel sauce:
  1. Using a small saucepan, heat the milk until hot but not scalded or boiling. In the meantime, in a separate saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, whisk in the flour until smooth. Stir for 2 minutes over medium heat. Do not let the flour brown.
  2. Add several tablespoons of the hot milk, and whisk vigorously. Continue adding milk in small increments, whisking until incorporated, until it has all been added to the sauce.
  3. Add the salt, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the sauce thickens to the consistency of heavy cream, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and use immediately or cool to room temperature.
To make the baked ziti:
  1. To cook the pasta, bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot over high heat. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with 1/2 tablespoon of butter, and set aside.
  2. Grab a large bowl (one big enough to hold the cooked ziti, spinach and béchamel), and pour the hot béchamel into the bowl. Add the Gorgonzola, and stir it into the béchamel. Set aside.
  3. Remove and discard the stems from the spinach. (If the spinach hasn’t been prewashed, wash the leaves in cold water until grit no longer appears in the bottom of the bowl. Shake the leaves to remove excess water, but don’t pat them dry.) Set aside.
  4. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a deep pot. Add the onion, and sauté over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add spinach. Stir to coat the leaves evenly with the butter. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach has wilted, about 5 minutes.
  5. Transfer the spinach mixture (including any liquid in the pot) into the bowl with the béchamel. Stir. Add nutmeg, and adjust the seasonings. Set aside.
  6. When your water comes to a boil, add salt and ziti. Check the recommended boiling time in the instructions on the package, and cook until it is 1 to 2 minutes shy of that time. Drain.
  7. Stir the ziti into the large bowl with the béchamel and spinach. Toss to coat well. Pour the mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano over the pasta.
  8. Bake, stirring twice, until the pasta has absorbed most of the sauce in the baking dish and is just beginning to turn golden brown in spots, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.
Source: The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook
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