How have we already arrived to the end of the year?! I’m always surprised once the holiday season arrives despite knowing that it is approaching. I’ve never been one to begin preparing for Christmas mid-year, but I’m starting to think that isn’t such a bad idea. I started this month feeling under the weather for two weeks straight which put me behind on everything I have wanted to do for Christmas, including publishing more blog posts. As much as I love the holidays, it is also the time of year that I feel the most overwhelmed. The pressure is completely self-imposed because there are many things I enjoy doing during the Christmas season (parties! baking cookies! shopping!) but I also want to stay home curled up on the couch to drink tea, read, and listen to Christmas music all day. In recent years, I’ve learned to find balance between doing the activities I enjoy and making time to stay in the comfort of my own home. It’s made all the difference in stressing less and enjoying the season more.
This is also the time of year I like to make easy, uncomplicated dinners that come together quickly and can be made ahead. After all, we can’t live on Christmas cookies alone this time of year, as much as we’d like to! Having a satisfying dinner ready in advance is a big time-saver during the busy holiday season. My recipe for these baked rigatoni with zucchini and ham has been on regular rotation since Peter and I have been married–almost twenty years! Baked pasta is one of my favorite comfort foods, and I love it during the cold months when it’s especially satisfying. It can be made a few hours ahead, covered, and refrigerated so that all you have to do is pop it in the oven when you are ready to eat. It’s great for a quiet weeknight dinner, and perfect for feeding a crowd of pasta-loving family and friends.
The shape of the pasta you use plays an important role in the final outcome of the recipe. Long, short, twisted, ridged, thick, or thin–different pasta shapes and textures will absorb and hold the sauce differently. Italians don’t have strict rules for matching a specific pasta shape to a specific sauce, but there are guidelines for matching sauce to the hundreds of pasta shapes that exist. Then there are the classic pairings that most Italians never deviate from–linguine with clams, tagliatelle with ragù bolognese, orecchiette with broccoli and sausage–these pairings have been part of the Italian culinary canon for decades (if not centuries). In general, longer, flatter shapes pair best with olive oil and cream-based sauces. The shorter, sturdier shapes will always work well with chunkier, heavily textured sauces. A simple tomato sauce pairs deliciously well with almost all shapes. Of course, there are exceptions, so the best way to learn the pasta-sauce pairing concept is to read, research, and ask questions. A trip to Italy isn’t a bad idea either!
For this recipe, I always use rigatoni since the sturdy, ridged shape holds up well to the thick and creamy béchamel sauce, and the tubular hollow is the perfect spot for pieces of diced ham and sautéed zucchini to hide. You could also use trecce–a larger, thicker shape similar to fusilli. The important thing is choosing a short pasta shape that will not lose it’s texture or be weighed down by the béchamel sauce, ham, and zucchini once it’s all combined.
Another detail not to overlook when making any kind of pasta al forno is to cook the pasta 2-3 minutes less than indicated on the package instructions. You want it mostly cooked, but just a bit firmer than al dente. Since the pasta will bake for up to forty minutes, the pasta will finish cooking in the oven to just the right texture without being overcooked. And don’t forget to salt the pasta cooking water! It’s the only chance the pasta has to be seasoned from the inside.
I like to cover the baking dish loosely with foil when the pasta first goes into the oven–this prevents the surface of the pasta from drying out and browning as it bakes. During the last ten minutes of cooking, I remove the foil to allow the Parmigiano cheese and dots of butter to finish melting, and the edges of the rigatoni to take on a light golden color and delicately crisp texture. Pack some patience once you take the pasta out of the oven–it benefits from a ten minute rest before serving, and will still be plenty hot as you spoon it into bowls and tuck into a recipe that I’m certain will become one of your favorites, too.
Baked Rigatoni with Zucchini and Ham
1½ Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
1 pound (456 grams) zucchini, washed and dried
⅓ cup (75 mL) extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 recipe béchamel sauce
1 pound (456 grams) rigatoni
10 ounces (285 grams) cooked ham, cut into small dice
4 Tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Grease a 9 x 13 inch (23 x 33 cm) oven-safe baking dish with 1 Tablespoon of butter and set it aside.
Trim the ends off each zucchini and discard. Cut each zucchini lengthwise in half and then cut each piece lengthwise in half again. Each zucchini should be cut into 4 long pieces. Cut the zucchini lengths crosswise into ¼-inch pieces (they will look like triangles). Set aside.
Heat a 10-inch (25 cm) skillet over medium heat and add in the olive oil. Add in all the zucchini, the salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Cook the zucchini over medium heat, stirring often until it is completely cooked through and just beginning to caramelize lightly at the edges. The zucchini will give off some water as it begins to cook down, but it will evaporate away as it continues to cook. Once the zucchini is cooked, it should glisten with the oil and be very tender to the point of some pieces looking as if they are melting. Turn off the heat and set the pan aside.
Put a large pot of water to boil over hight heat.
While the water comes to a boil, make the béchamel sauce. Once it is finished, cover the pot with a lid to keep the béchamel sauce warm.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Salt the pasta water and add in the rigatoni. Stir frequently to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook the rigatoni 2-3 minutes less than indicated on the package instructions. The pasta will finish cooking when it bakes in the oven. Strain the pasta thoroughly through a colander and return it to the pot.
Pour all of the béchamel sauce over the rigatoni and stir to coat them evenly. Add in the sautéed zucchini and diced ham and mix well to distribute the ingredients evenly throughout the pasta.
Transfer the pasta mixture to the greased baking dish and spread it out evenly. Top the pasta mixture with the Parmigiano and dot the top with the remaining ½ Tablespoon of butter.
Cover the pasta lightly with a piece of aluminum foil and bake on the center rack for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes until it turns a light golden color.
Allow the baked rigatoni to rest for 10 minutes before serving.