Conchiglie and Cauliflower Pasta Bake
“What type of pasta should we get?” I asked Joan as we walked into the supermarket.
“Big shells!” she replied, gesturing an impossibly large shape with her hands.
In our house, pasta shells (known in Italian as conchiglie) almost always get turned into a baked dish. “Should we add pumpkin, cauliflower or bolognese ?” I asked, assuming she’d pick bolognese. That she selected cauliflower pleased me greatly, because conchiglie and cauliflower pasta bake is one of my favourites; Ben’s, too. Walt is yet to taste this dish (he was sick when we most recently ate it and wanted nothing more than breastmilk), however I’m sure he’ll agree with his sister that these sort of meals are the bees knees. Though perhaps the thing Joan most loves about baked pasta is that it features in one of her favourite stories - that is, the story of when I found out I was pregnant with her. You see, the night before I took the pregnancy test, I made baked pasta. And though it’s not the most important detail in the story, I always include it, as I know my food-loving girl appreciates the tidbit. It was a bolognese pasta bake, by the way, and Ben and I ate it on the couch while watching The Sopranos.
Back at the supermarket, I placed a jar of good quality passata in our shopping basket, along with the biggest pasta shells we could find, some smooth ricotta and a head of cauliflower. Everything else we needed for the dish - garlic, oil, salt, nutmeg, lemon, parmesan and something leafy + green - we had at home. When it came time to prepare dinner, I turned the oven on then cut the cauliflower into big, shell-sized pieces. I cooked the pasta in salted boiling water, adding the cauliflower in the final few minutes - making sure to undercook both the pasta and cauliflower, as they’d cook further in the oven. I then drained the lot and put it all in a wide baking dish with chunks of butter, which promptly melted from the heat of the cooked pasta and cauliflower. Though before that - while the pasta boiled - I gently cooked the garlic in some olive oil. Last time I skipped this step, adding raw garlic to the ricotta mixture; and while I quite enjoyed the flavour, Ben found it a tad potent. Joan helped prepare the ricotta filling by mixing the cooked garlic, olive oil, nutmeg, lemon zest and salt. She’s not a cheese-lover, my girl. Occasionally she’ll have some cheddar (very rarely parmesan) but most of the time she avoids it. My hope was that by helping to prepare the ricotta filling, she would be more amenable to eating it; thought I kept a small potion free of ricotta, anticipating that trick may not work this time (spoiler alert: it didn’t). I then went about adding spoonfuls of the ricotta filling to the remainder of the shells, adding a few blobs here and there around the cauliflower, too. Fresh basil leaves were added, then the passata went over the top, blanketing everything in a rich, red sauce. Once that was done, I scattered parmesan (avoiding Joan’s corner) and drizzled olive oil. After twenty or so minutes in a hot oven it was golden, and I could finally tell Joan it was time to set the table.
“Good pasta bake, Joan?” I asked while we ate.
“Good pasta bake, Mum.”
Conchiglie and Cauliflower Pasta Bake
Notes: this pasta bake is heavy on the cauliflower. You’ll end up with around 50% cauliflower, 50% pasta on your plate. Feel free to adjust the ratio as you wish. You want to splurge on a good quality passata here, as you’re simply opening it up and dumping it onto the dish. If you use a lacklustre one, the flavour will be nowhere near as good. I like this variety for a mid-range option. Finally, I encourage you to serve the pasta bake alongside a salad made with bitter leaves, like raddichio, that have been dressed in lots of lemon juice or vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
350g conchiglie (big shells)
600g cauliflower (~ 1 medium head), cut into large, conchiglie-sized florets
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
350g (~1 1/2 cups) smooth, full-fat ricotta
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Zest of a third of an unwaxed lemon
1 big handful fresh basil leaves (you can use baby spinach if no basil is available)
1 x 700g jar good quality passata
80g (~1 cup) freshly grated parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius
2. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water for ~3 minutes LESS than the packet says (most shells I’ve seen require a cooking time of around 14 minutes, so I stop cooking after 11 minutes).
3. When the pasta has 3 minutes left to go (i.e. after 8 minutes), add the cauliflower and put the lid on to bring it back to a boil (it may not get there - that’s ok). After 3 minutes, drain the lot.
4. Meanwhile, gently heat the olive oil over low heat and cook the garlic until it begins to turn golden. If your baking dish (the one you’ll be putting the pasta, etc, into) can be used both on the stove and in the oven, use that. Otherwise use a small saucepan. Put the cooked garlic and oil into a mixing bowl and set aside to cool. Once cooled, add the ricotta, nutmeg, lemon zest and a small pinch of sea salt. Stir to combine.
5. When the pasta and cauliflower are cooked, drain them then add to the large baking dish along with a knob of butter, stirring to melt the butter. Place the ricotta filling inside the shells and around some of the cauliflower. Be as haphazard about this as you wish - I often lose patience and end up blobbing it randomly, which is totally fine. Scatter the basil leaves then pour the passata over the top, spreading it around with a spoon to ensure it covers everything fairly evenly. Scatter the parmesan, drizzle generously with olive oil and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes until bubbling and golden. If your baking dish has a lid, you can put it on and remove it halfway into the cooking process or leave the lid off entirely - both options work.