I can’t imagine anyone not liking baked pasta (if that’s you, email me, because I’d love to hear about it!). For me, it started out as real stoner food.

Well, not quite. It started when I was a boy, and we went to “fancy” Italian restaurants – with checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles with candles in them, yes – and you could order “real” Italian food, which meant anything that wasn’t pizza: lasagna, baked ziti, or like that. Noodles with red sauce, meat, and mozz, baked in the oven. Yes.

But later – let’s say in the magical year of 1967 — my friend Chuck and I would stumble into the kitchen and he’d concoct his masterpiece, which was made up of a pound of pasta, a pound of mozz, and a quart of sauce. The sauce was made by his mother, Constance, a wonderful woman who was either oblivious or extremely tolerant.

The method – and I will mention that Chuck was the cook, not me; I knew nothing – was to cook the pasta, shred the cheese, drain the pasta, toss it with the mozz and barely warmed-up sauce. (Sometimes we’d toss with cold sauce; the mozz didn’t melt as well but we could inhale the pasta faster.) That, friends, is four pounds of food. (The pasta absorbs about its weight in water, and a quart weighs about a pound.) We’d always finish the whole thing. In like twelve minutes. While listening to "Sunshine of Your Love," or whatever.

Yes, you can make baked pasta without dairy

These days, I try to eat less dairy, which you might think rules out baked pasta in any form: It’s not true. A couple of years ago, I published Dinner for Everyone. The book features a number of different “umbrella” foods (sweet breakfast, stir-fry, scampi, one-pot pasta, etc.) with three versions of each: Easy, vegan, and “perfect for company,” i.e., a little more special. (Fun fact: The book was going to be called Three Ways. Mm-hm.)

It was a challenging task, but a lot of fun, and it produced some of my favorite recipes. Surprisingly, in the baked pasta section, just one of the three dishes features cheese, and perhaps my favorite of the three is the vegan version: Mediterranean Gratin with Almond Breadcrumbs.

The combination of ingredients is a really good one: Bitter greens and caramelized onions, with hearty whole-wheat pasta. It’s important not to overcook the pasta – it should be pliable but not yet edible when you drain it. And, you can do all of that in advance. Then you toast some almonds, pulse them with bread, parsley, and oil — as good a combination as exists in the world – and that’s your topping. No cheese necessary.

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 Total Time: 1½ hours

Mediterranean Gratin with Almond Breadcrumbs

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 cup raw almonds
  • 2 red onions, halved and sliced
  • 2 thick slices of stale crusty bread, torn into pieces
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley
  • Pepper
  • 12 ounces broccoli rabe, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry white wine or water
  • 1½ cups cooked cannellini beans or one 15-ounce can drained
  • 12 ounces whole-wheat penne or other similar pasta

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Heat the oven to 425°F and grease a 9-inch square baking dish or ovenproof 10-inch skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Put the almonds in a large skillet over medium heat and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until they are golden and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and wipe out the pan.
  2. In the same skillet, cook the onions over medium heat, covering the pan and stirring once in a while, until they’re dry and beginning to stick to the pan, 10 to 15 minutes. While the onions cook, add the bread to the food processor along with the parsley and 2 tablespoons oil and pulse until finely ground.
  3. Uncover the onions and stir in 2 tablespoons of oil and a large pinch of salt. Lower the heat so the mixture sizzles gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden and soft, adding small amounts of oil if necessary to keep them from sticking without getting greasy, 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with pepper; taste and adjust the seasoning. Transfer to a large bowl and return the pan to medium-high heat.
  4. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the broccoli rabe, olives, and garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often until the broccoli is crisp-tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring often, until it darkens, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and beans and cook, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from the pan, until the wine is reduced by half. Add the vegetables to the onions, mix, taste, and adjust the seasoning.
  5. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, then start tasting. When the noodles become pliable but not yet edible, drain and reserve 1/4 cup cooking water. Add the penne and cooking water to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine.
  6. Transfer the pasta to the prepared pan and top with the breadcrumb mixture. Bake until the pasta is tender but still has some bite and the bread- crumbs are browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Let sit for a couple of minutes before cutting into squares or wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.

 

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