Sometimes comfort food is in order, and for me, that usually means something with cheese. I’m guessing I’m not alone as a cheese-lover. After a particularly fraught afternoon of work, which coincided with my dog deciding to whine and bark non-stop (she’s adjusting to the noises of open windows & doors for the first time since last fall) and my own frazzled, bumbling mistake of knocking over a plant onto my scanner and work papers… I thought I might just eat cheese and crackers for dinner. But that wouldn’t quite be fair to my hard-working, hungry husband, and I didn’t have any crackers, so I decided to make baked penne with lots of fresh leeks, garlic, tender greens and cheese. A good amount of cheese. I love that this meal satisfies comfort food cravings but is still packed with good-for-you greens, the best of both worlds. The bitterness of the greens is the perfect foil for the sweetness of leeks and richness of fontina and parmesan, and a small bowl makes me as happy as any over the top, with pounds of butter and five different cheeses, mac & cheese recipe does… plus I get my vegetables.
You know that I love greens with pasta; this isn’t my first recipe with this combination. But the fontina…! The fontina. A melty, creamy, dreamy cheese I don’t use often but should. In a baked pasta dish, it behaves like a cross between cream and mozzarella, becoming gooey and melting into a sauce that isn’t dissimilar from an alfredo. Leeks right now are tender and so sweet, a beautiful flavor in any creamy sauce and worth seeking out. (In a pinch, substitute a diced medium-sized shallot.) As for greens, you can certainly use anything you have on hand– spinach, Swiss chard, kale, any of the lovely rabes gracing the farmers’ markets these days or a combination– but I do strongly recommend finding something with some bitterness to it. I had a great conversation Sunday with a vendor at the market about embracing bitter flavors; we agreed that spring greens are some of the best vehicles for adding a pleasantly bitter taste to your meal. I love sour and bitter flavors and use them often, but I think my fellow bitter-lovers may be a smaller group than the band of cheese-lovers out there. Trust me here and give this recipe a try if you’re waffling: it’s a gentle gateway recipe before you tackle eggplant, or chicory. We’re just talking about a little springy bitterness, nothing close to rapini or arugula. How fascinating that many of the most well-known bitter ingredients are commonly featured in Italian cuisine, where they’re balanced by the sweetness of tomatoes or bell peppers, the richness of cheese or olive oil… If you really don’t care for bitterness, go with spinach or young chard leaves. If you are a fan, like me, I think you’ll like this baked penne very much.
Dishes like this remind me how wonderful it is to turn around a rotten day with some kitchen therapy: washing the greens, slicing the leeks, grating cheese. It also makes me happy that I can make something so creamy and satisfying that still has some green goodness in it. As usual, it’s a fairly easy dish to put together; you could even make it the day before and just bake it up when you are ready. I’m not wishing a day like I had on anyone, but if that does happen to you… at least you now have a plan for dinner.
Baked Penne with Greens & Fontina (serves 4)
- 8 oz. penne
- 1 T. olive oil
- 1 leek, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise, washed thoroughly and sliced thinly
- 1 anchovy fillet (optional)
- 6 oz. mixed baby greens (about 6 c.), washed thoroughly*
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1/3 c. cream
- 1 c. shredded fontina
- parmesan cheese
Cook the penne in salted boiling water, according to package directions, minus two minutes of cook time. It will cook further in the oven and you don’t want it mushy.
In a skillet over medium heat, saute the leeks in olive oil until they begin to soften and become fragrant. Add the anchovy fillet, if using, and break it up with the back of a wooden spoon. Add about half of the greens to the pan and allow them to wilt, stirring occasionally; when there’s room in the pan, add the rest of the greens and the garlic, continuing to stir. When the greens have all wilted, add a pinch of salt and some pepper and remove from the heat. Add the cream to the pan and set aside.
Prepare a 2 qt. casserole or similar oven-proof dish and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add the drained, cooked pasta to the skillet and sprinkle with half of the fontina. Toss until the pasta is coated in sauce and the cheese and greens are equally distributed; pour the pasta mixture into the casserole dish. Sprinkle the remaining fontina evenly over the pasta and grate/sprinkle parmesan cheese over the top. Bake for 20 mins., then increase the heat and broil the top of the casserole for about 5 mins., to fully melt the cheese and brown it slightly. Serve immediately, with more parmesan, if desired. The recipe can be easily doubled to accommodate more people.
*The combination of greens I used included spinach, red & green chard and kale. Similar blends are available in most grocery stores.