Baked Penne, Ziti, Or Campagnelle With Red Peppers, Onions, Mushrooms, Olives, Tomatoes, and Fresh Mozzarella

This Baked Pasta With Vegetables Is Better Than Anything You Will Eat In A Restaurant! 

At least ten years ago, I had an absolutely delicious baked pasta dish at a great restaurant in Westfield, New Jersey called Ferrara’s.  The pasta was amazing, but I never saw it again on their menu.  I have been working on recreating that dish, and I finally have!  I made this for my daughter and her husband this week.  They are vegetarians and they enjoy pasta dishes that have lots of veggies.  They loved this as much as I did.  My daughter kept repeating, “This is so flavorful!” Her husband really liked it, too.   I recommend making this if you are in the mood for baked ziti, but you’re a little bored with it.  Please give this recipe a try.  It is truly delicious!

    • 1 pound pasta -(I used Barilla’s campagnelle, which look like little trumpets.  This shape pasta is awesome!  If I couldn’t find campagnelle, I would substitute penne.)
    • about 10 oz. of whole milk ricotta cheese (may substitute part-skim)
    • 1/2 cup of freshly grated romano or parmigiana cheese
    • 1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
    • 1/4 cup of starchy pasta water (reserved from when you cook the pasta)
    • 1 large, but not huge, red onion, quartered and thinly sliced (may use white or yellow onion)
    • about 6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
    • 1 very large red bell pepper, seeded, quartered and thinly sliced into 1/4 inch slices
    • 1- 10 ounce box of baby bella mushrooms, thinly sliced (may substitute white mushrooms)
    • about 8 assorted black and green pitted olives, cut in halves or thirds – optional (I pick an assortment of marinated black and green olives with red pepper flakes, or garlic, or oregano from the olive bar at the supermarket)
    • 1-28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
    • about 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1 pound of fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
    • kosher salt
    • freshly ground black pepper
    • crushed red pepper flakes
    • dried oregano

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly oil a 9 x 13 rectangular or oval baking dish.   Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat with the olive oil.  Add about 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes, and stir.  After about 2 minutes, add the peppers, onions,  and the mushrooms.  Sprinkle with some kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Let them sit without turning so the mushrooms have a chance to brown.  Turn after about 4 minutes, and let sit for 1 or two minutes, then mix.  Cook another 2 or so minutes and add the garlic.  Mix and cook another 2-4 minutes.  Vegetables should be softened by this time.  Add the crushed tomatoes and reduce the flame to low.  Add a little more salt and pepper and stir with a wooden spoon.   Add the olives.   Let simmer for a few minutes uncovered, then cover the pan and keep on a low simmer.

Start to boil the pasta, adding salt if you wish.  In a large mixing bowl, mix the ricotta cheese with the freshly grated romano cheese, the parsley, and a few grinds of freshly ground pepper, using a rubber spatula.  Then take about a half of a ladleful or 1/4 cup of the pasta water and mix it in with the ricotta cheese mixture.  The ricotta cheese mixture should become somewhat creamy.  Cook the pasta till al dente, drain it, and pour it into the bowl with the ricotta mixture.  Gently mix together using a rubber spatula.

Pour the pasta into the prepared baking dish.  Ladle the tomato and vegetable sauce over the pasta.  Gently mix it with a spoon,  but don’t go crazy.  It should just be slightly mixed together.  You don’t want the ricotta cheese to just blend into the tomato sauce.  Top with the all the thinly sliced fresh mozzarella cheese.  Sprinkle lightly with more crushed red pepper flakes, and then sprinkle evenly with about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of oregano.

Bake for about 10 minutes at 375 degrees.  When the mozzarella cheese is starting to look really melty, change the setting on the oven to broil.  Watch very carefully and take out of the oven when the cheese starts to brown, after about 5-10 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Note#1:  Obviously, omit the olives if you don’t like them.  They add a definite taste to the dish, so you have to like them to use them!

Notes #2:  When I make this I often prepare it the day or night before I  will be serving it.  I do not slice or put the mozzarella on at this point.  The next day, I let the dish sit on the counter for about an hour.  I bake the dish at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, covered with aluminum foil.  Then I take it out of the oven, uncover it, and put the sliced mozzarella on top, sprinkle it with some red pepper flakes and the oregano.  I put it back in the middle of the oven uncovered for about 10 minutes.  Then I change the setting on the oven to broil.  I  watch it as it broils for another 10 minutes or so just until the cheese started to brown.

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