This easy but tasty pasta dish is a staple all over Italy. Pasta al Forno is simple and filling and is perfect for families as well as parties and large gatherings. Al forno means ‘oven-baked’, which is a traditional method of cooking especially in Northern Italy, where wood-fired brick and clay ovens are traditionally used. The iconic Italian oven is most often brick-lined with an arched door, and food is pushed into the back of the oven on a wooden tray with a long handle – the thought of this rustic style of cooking just makes the dish taste better already!
Italian’s consider Pasta al Forno as fast-food, something they can quickly rustle-up either from left-overs and/or store-cupboard staples – to me it is like a short-cut Lasagne, tasty and filling, yet in a fraction of the time!
It is a hearty but straightforward dish of pre-boiled pasta layered with tomato and cheese – simple Italian ingredients; great as a comforting dish that the whole family will enjoy – perfect as a meat-free meal! The double cooking of the pasta means it is has a soft rather than chewy ‘al dente’ texture of most authentic Italian pasta dishes.
Here is what you need to feed 4 – but it’s so easy to double or even treble up!
Extra virgin olive oil
1 Onion finely chopped
2 Cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1-2 Dried red chillies crumbled
3 x 400g Tins of plum tomatoes
Small glass of water
1 Generous handful fresh basil leaves
Salt – to taste
Freshly ground black pepper – to taste
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar – if liked
400g Dried penne, rigatoni or ziti
4 Generous handfuls Parmesan cheese, freshly grated if possible
3 x 150g Mozzarella balls
How to cook…
- Pre-heat oven to 200°C/400ºF/gas mark 6
- Gently fry onion, garlic and chilli in the olive oil for about 10 minutes until softened, but not coloured.
- Add tomatoes to the onion mixture, along with a small glass of water (you can of course use fresh tomatoes cored, skinned and chopped (approx.1.5 kg))
- Bring the vegetable mixture to the boil and then simmer for 20 minutes or so.
- At this point, put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta, and cook pasta as per instructions and drain.
- Then, if you prefer a smoother sauce, use a food processor or blender to make a loose tomato sauce, otherwise simply mash to make a more rustic tomato sauce.
- Add torn basil leaves into the tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper to your taste, and a little red wine vinegar if you like.
- Add half of the tomato sauce and a handful of Parmesan to the hot, drained pasta.
- Grease a large casserole dish with olive oil.
- Fill the dish with one layer of pasta, and top with some of the remaining tomato sauce, a handful of grated Parmesan and 1 mozzarella ball sliced; then repeat until you’ve used everything up – make sure you leave enough cheese for a generous layer on the top!
- Bake for 15 minutes or until the top is crisp and golden.
- Serve with a simple green salad.
- Great for warming up for a second sitting too! Or it can be eaten cold! A perfect versatile weeknight meal.
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