One of the things I love most about pasta is how accommodating it is to any time schedule. Have a weekend to roll homemade dough and stuff pockets of ravioli with hand-pulled mozzarella? Go for it, baby. Have an afternoon to slow-cook a perfect meaty ragù? The rewards will be rich.
But let's say you need to prep dinner in 10 minutes or less. You can't even boil a pot of water in that amount of time — but pasta is still your friend! Meet the no-boil pasta bake.
Yes, this pasta casserole doesn't even require cooked pasta, just dried. It will take you 5 minutes to prep for the oven — no, I'm not exaggerating. Pour some dry pasta into a casserole dish, open a can of tomatoes, dump in some cheese and garlic — bang the whole thing into the oven. An hour later you'll find that you've done a magic trick: Hot, gooey, bubbling noodles and cheese. And it's totally homemade, with fresh, whole ingredients — just pasta and a few helpers. See how accommodating pasta can be?
This does take an hour to bake, but this time is totally hands-off; you can go do something else productive. The actual prep time for this is really very close to 5 minutes, especially if you aren't cooking chicken breasts specially for this recipe. I use frozen chopped chicken breasts or cooked chicken from the salad bar at the grocery store.
After that, this is just a matter of smashing garlic, opening up some diced tomatoes, and finding cheese and milk. The whole thing is topped off with a crunchy layer of green herbed breadcrumbs.
Top: The pasta bake just after coming out of the oven. See how gooey it is? Below: The cold pasta after a night in the fridge; it's much firmer.
This recipe is very flexible; leave out the chicken, if you want a vegetarian dish. You can skip the final breadcrumb topping, too, to save time, but I like the crunchy breadcrumbs; my husband thought they had the crumbly, chewy texture (and herb-y flavor) of browned sausage. It tops off the casserole very nicely.
When this first comes out of the oven it will be gooey and bubbling — saucy and a bit soupy. As it cools it will firm up and thicken. After a night in the fridge this is a solid pasta casserole, able to be cut in wedges. Personally, I like it best straight out of the oven, although it does make fantastic leftovers too.
No-Boil Chicken & Tomato Pasta Bake
serves 4 to 6
8 ounces (1/2 pound) dried rigatoni pasta, uncooked 2 cups chopped cooked chicken breast meat (omit for a vegetarian dish) 4 large cloves garlic, roughly minced One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes 2 cups shredded cheese, such as mozzarella or a mix of mozzarella and provolone 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste Freshly ground black pepper 2 cups milk * (see Note)
Cheesy Basil Topping 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh herbs, such as basil, thyme, and sage 1/4 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup olive oil
Heat the oven to 400°F and lightly grease a 3-quart casserole dish with olive oil. (Ideally you would use a heavy Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, but you can also use a standard 9x13-inch casserole pan, tightly covered with a double layer of aluminum foil during baking.)
In a large bowl, mix the dried pasta, chopped chicken breast, minced garlic, and diced tomatoes (with their juices). Stir in the salt and a healthy quantity of black pepper. (If the tomatoes you are using have no salt in them, add an additional 1/2 teaspoon salt.) Stir in the shredded cheese and the Parmesan. Spread this mixture in the prepared baking dish and pour the milk over top. Cover the dish tightly. Bake for 50 minutes, or until the pasta is tender. Remove the dish from the oven and turn the oven up to broil.
Meanwhile, prepare the herb topping. In a small food processor or chopper, whiz the breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, blending until the texture resembles wet sand.
Slowly remove the lid (or foil) from the casserole dish. Be careful, as steam will billow out. Spread the herbed breadcrumbs over the bubbling pasta and return the uncovered dish to the oven. Broil for 5 minutes or until the topping is toasted and crispy on top.
Take the casserole out of the oven and let it cool for about 10 minutes before serving. Eat with a green salad and a glass of red wine.
* Note: The more fat in your milk, the thicker and more luxurious this dish will be. I have only made this with whole milk, which worked very well. I see no reason why lower-fat milks would not work as well, but they may be soupier, with a thinner sauce, when you first remove them from the oven.