Friday, August 31, 2012

Baked Conchiglie with Spicy Sausage, Kale, and Ricotta

The Setting: A mostly cloudy day in Nashville.

The Soundtrack: Oia's delightful baby banter.

Steaming up the Oven: Chocolate cake for a new recipe to be disclosed soon...assuming it turns out alright.

The Scenario: Comfort in a bowl, coming your way.

Every now and then I get a ridiculously intense, won't-go-away, got-to-have-it craving for lasagna.

It's not the layers of pasta that elicit this sensation--though, hey, layers of pasta are great.

But what makes me purr like Garfield the cat is that perfect combination of ultra-comforting flavors and textures: spicy, meaty, Italian sausage; juicy, acidic, and slightly sweet tomato; stretchy-gooey, melted mozzarella, golden and crunchy around the edges of the dish; and, most of all, super-fresh, creamy ricotta, oozing out with every press of fork to pasta.

In truth, it was the desire for fresh, local ricotta above all that sent me to the store not so long ago with a list of lasagna ingredients in hand.

So when a charming brown-paper bag of imported conchiglie (con-KEEL-yay) caught my eye on the pasta aisle, I placed my wavy lasagna sheets right back on the shelf and eagerly plopped the bag of curvy, ridged, ricotta-catching shells into my basket.

With pasta that traps the creamy cheese and hearty sauce so well, each bite is like a little present, popping with flavor and literally oozing with yumminess in every bite.

Look for fresh, locally made ricotta if you can--it makes all the difference!

Baked Conchiglie with Spicy Sausage, Kale, and Ricotta
Conchiglie simply means shells. While the word most often refers to the familiar conch-style shells of mac-and-cheese fame, it may also refer to the snail-shell-style conchiglie that inspired this dish. These particular shells are also often called lumache, which, appropriately enough, means snails.

1 lb hot Italian turkey sausage
4 medium-sized shallots, finely chopped (1 large or two small white onions would be fine in this dish as well; I just happened to have shallots on hand)
2 medium-sized carrots, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
freshly cracked black pepper
crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp garlic powder
1 T dried oregano
2 tsp dried basil
8 oz frozen chopped kale
2 (15 oz) cans plain tomato sauce
1 lb dried conchiglie
olive oil for the baking dish
2 lbs fresh ricotta
1 lb shredded mozzarella
several leaves fresh basil and flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Remove the casings from the sausage and brown the meat in a saute pan or skillet over med-high heat, using a heatproof rubber spatula to crumble the sausage into little pieces.

Meanwhile, place the shallots, carrots, and celery in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat and season with black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes. Cover and cook 6 minutes. Season lightly with salt, add garlic powder and dried herbs, cover, and cook 10 minutes or until shallots and celery are translucent and carrots are softened, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat if necessary.

When the sausage crumbles have browned on all sides, add the frozen kale to the sausage pan and season lightly with salt and pepper, stirring to combine. Reduce heat to med-low, cover, and cook just until kale has thawed. The moisture from the kale will help loosen any fond (browned bits) from the bottom of the pan so that you can scrape them up and incorporate them into the mixture.

Transfer the sausage mixture to the saucepan with the veggies. Stir in both cans of tomato sauce, cover, and cook while you prepare the pasta.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease two 8x8x3-inch casserole dishes with olive oil.

Bring 4 quarts of generously salted water to boil in a large pot--you'll want to use about 1 T fine-grain salt or 1 1/2 T coarse salt.

Add the pasta and boil 8 minutes or until al dente (soft to touch but with a little firmness left in the bite). Strain the pasta, add it back to the pot, and return the pot to a burner set to low heat for about 1 minute to help drive off any excess moisture.

Pour the sauce over the pasta, and stir to coat evenly.

Place 1/4 of the pasta in each of the two prepared dishes, spreading the pasta into an even layer in each.

Dollop the ricotta (1 lb for each dish) evenly over the top of the pasta.

Spread out the riccotta in an even layer if desired, top with the remaining pasta, and finish with the shredded mozzarella.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 15 minutes, or until the mozzarella is completely melted and verging on golden and bubbly. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs, and serve.

Serves 8-10.

Thanks for reading. Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life!