Tender pasta tangled up with caramelized onions and spinach, sauced with tomatoes, and baked into a perfection of cheesy comfort! Even though I can’t let go of my summertime longings, I’m reveling in the comfort of fall – there’s nothing quite like all things baked and delicious! And… when it involves molten cheese, you can always count me in!
I’ve added all sorts of things to this dish, but in the end I went with my original recipe in it’s simplicity. That’s not to say you can’t go a little wild with this though, it’s great with roasted delicata or butternut squash, browned hot italian sausage, or sautéed mushrooms thrown into the mix.
To prepare the onions, cut off both ends and peel the outer layer. Next lay each onion half flat side down on the cutting board – then cut across the rounded top to create 1/4″ half moon slices.
I highly recommend doubling the amount of onions called for in the recipe because caramelized onions are cooking gold! I put away the extra half of the caramelized onions and made omelets with them on the weekend, (filled with smoked turkey, aged cheddar, spinach, and of course caramelized onions)! I almost never go through the work of making caramelized onions just for an omelet, but I love having them ready to go in the fridge, waiting to be thrown into almost anything!
Once you add the tomatoes to the caramelized onions, you want to simmer the sauce until it’s a bit thicker than a normal marinara sauce. The spinach will add quite a bit of liquid to the sauce while the pasta bakes.
While the sauce is simmering, you’ll be cooking the pasta – if the sauce starts getting too thick just turn off the heat while the pasta finishes cooking.
When you add the spinach to the pan, it will barely wilt – you don’t want to actually cook it because it will finish cooking in the oven.
I like to add about 1/3 of the fresh mozzarella right into the pasta mix – that way there’s cheesy pockets in the middle of the pasta bake! In the recipe, it calls for fresh mozzarella cut into cubes but you can also tear it into pieces – whichever is easiest for you.
Fresh mozzarella is awesome in pasta bakes, because of it’s moist nature it adds a creamy element to the tomato sauce! I have a how-to post coming for you with everything you need to know and more about cooking pasta. It’s taken me a while to put together because I just keep thinking of things to add to it, so I hope you’ll find it helpful for easier, less stressful dinners!
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 large onion, weighing 1 pound
- 28 ounces canned whole tomatoes
- 1½ Teaspoons sea salt
- 4 ounces fresh spinach
- 12 ounces pasta, (I used Delallo brown rice shells)
- 4 quarts of water + 2 Tablespoons sea salt for cooking the pasta
- 12 ounces fresh mozzarella*, cut into ½" chunks
- Preheat a large 12" skillet over medium heat, and preheat the oven to 450ºF.
- While the skillet preheats, prepare the onion by cutting off both ends and slicing it in half from the top to the bottom. Peel the outer tough layer and lay each onion half face down on the cutting board. Slice across the rounded top into ¼" half moon slices.
- Add the olive oil and sliced onion to the preheated skillet. Sauté the onions until they caramelize, about 20 minutes. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat, the onions won't properly caramelize over high heat.
- For the tomatoes, crush them by hand or blend them in a blender for 10 seconds (just long enough there are no big chunks but not completely smooth). Add the tomatoes and sea salt to the pan with the onions once they are golden brown. Simmer over medium heat until the sauce becomes thick. You want your tomato sauce to be a little thicker than a normal marinara because the spinach will loosen the sauce during the baking.
- While the sauce is simmering, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 Tablespoons sea salt and the 12 ounce package of pasta. Cook the pasta, stirring every few minutes until it's a very firm al dente - meaning when you bite into a piece, it will be tender on the outside but with a good amount of uncooked center. When you're baking pasta, you want the pasta to be not quite done because it will continue to cook in the oven.
- Once the pasta is done, add the spinach and pasta to the pan with the tomato sauce. Stir to combine and then add about ⅓ of the fresh mozzarella. Mix thoroughly, then transfer the pasta into a baking dish.
- Top with the remaining mozzarella and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese begins to bubble and brown.
- Serve immediately.
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