Baked pasta is like an old friend I lost touch with for no good reason. Every time I get reacquainted, I think: “It’s been too long. Why don’t we do this more often?”
There’s really nothing quite as comforting as this combination of starch and cheese, bubbling hot, with a crispy topping. And yet I don’t find myself turning to it all that often — perhaps because it seems like a bit of a production (with multiple pans and lots of cleanup), and perhaps because the serving amounts tend to be in the eight-or-more range, too much for my two-person dinner table.
Then, one recent night, I had a craving. I had all my favorite makings in the house: roasted vegetables, cooked beans, dried pasta, canned tomatoes, cheese. It would come together more easily, so why not? We tried to control ourselves, portionwise, the first night, then had it for multiple lunches and follow-up dinners. By the end of the run, as satisfying as it had been at the start, the dish had gotten a little tiresome.
When I wanted to dive back in, I found a recipe from the great and powerful Alton Brown that featured an appealing approach that solved some of my issues. You use the same big cast-iron skillet to roast cauliflower, make a sauce and bake the assembled dish, so it’s down to two cooking vessels (including the pasta pot). And it’s a smaller batch — not overwhelming in the leftovers department.
I took a few liberties, adding white beans for a protein boost and switching to a smoked cheddar for extra flavor. The results proved this old friend needs to come back into my life for good.
Baked Pasta with Roasted Cauliflower and White Beans
MAKE AHEAD: The roasted cauliflower and the cooked pasta can each be refrigerated for up to 5 days before you proceed with the recipe. Bring to room temperature before baking. Servings: 4-6.
1 large head cauliflower (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
One 14-ounce can no-salt-added diced tomatoes and their juices, preferably fire-roasted, such as Muir Glen brand
One 15-ounce can (1 1/2 cups) no-salt-added cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
8 ounces dried penne or rigatoni pasta
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) smoked cheddar cheese, shredded or grated (may substitute smoked Gouda or smoked mozzarella)
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Remove and discard the cauliflower core and leaves. Break the florets into bite-size pieces. (You should have about 6 cups.) Toss the florets with the oil and the 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a large (10-to-12-inch) cast-iron or other heavy, ovenproof skillet. Roast, stirring a time or two, until the cauliflower is lightly browned and barely tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch or two of salt.
Once the cauliflower is done, transfer the skillet to the stove top over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes; cook until the garlic is tender, 3 to 4 minutes, then stir in the tomatoes and their juices and the beans. Cook until heated through, a few minutes, then remove from the heat.
Add the pasta to the boiling water; cook according to the package directions (al dente). Use a large slotted spoon or skimmer to scoop out the cooked pasta, letting it drain before transferring it to the skillet mixture. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and smoked cheddar cheeses; taste, and add salt as needed. Top with the bread crumbs.
Return the skillet to the oven; bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling and the bread crumbs are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Let the baked pasta cool for 5 minutes before scooping it into individual bowls for serving.
Nutrition: Per serving (based on 6): 360 calories, 17 g protein, 49 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 650 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown on altonbrown. com.