Cheesy Baked Chard Rigatoni {gluten-free}

Chard leaves and stems lighten up this twist on the classic baked ziti made with gluten-free pasta, ricotta, and a thick tomato puree. 

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

My niece Cierra is one of my favorite people on the planet. She’s funny, smart, talented beyond belief, with infectious warmth and generosity. She’s got the voice of a Broadway star and the dance moves to match. She’s currently in her second year of studying musical theater at a conservatory in Manhattan.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

Cierra was in town for the holidays. Since mine were spent with my nose buried in my manuscript, we only got a day together before she heads back across the country tomorrow morning. We met for lunch in the Marina at Seed + Salt for vegan burgers wrapped in collard greens, a mock-tuna salad plate, matcha lattes, and grain-free cookies and brownies for dessert. We went shopping and ran some errands, then headed back to my ‘hood for yoga. Dinner was this pasta with salad and kombucha, and I baked some cookies for dessert – a variation of a recipe that’s in the book which I’m SO excited for you to try. Cierra swore they were the best cookies she’s ever tasted. Then we watched cat vidoes.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

And yet the day wasn’t nearly long enough. Saying goodbye was hard.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

Cierra’s technically young enough to be my daughter; our age difference is close to Lorelai and Rory’s. I don’t have many maternal urges (except when it comes to this guy) but with Cierra I get that protective, worried-mom thing. I just want to shower her with gifts, and force-feed her pasta and cookies, and hold her tight so she never leaves and we can hang out forever.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

At dinner, we talked about her kitchen in their New York apartment. Like me, Cierra loves good food and came from a family with a foodie dad and a mom who’s passionate about health and wellness. Her days are filled with dance, singing, and acting classes and she’s so busy that she struggles to eat healthfully on a college student’s budget. But she loves to cook when she’s got the time, and we both wished we’d gotten to spend more days together doing just that.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

After she left on Monday night, I began thinking of bits of kitchen wisdom I’d like to share with her, so I noted them down here.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

  • Always have two kinds of salt in your kitchen: a fine sea or kosher salt for baking and cooking, and a coarse flaky salt for finishing anything, from salads to chocolate chip cookies, to make you feel instantly fancy. Keep them in a jar rather than a shaker so you can grab salt with your fingers or a measuring spoon.
  • Invest in a decent pepper mill and grind it over your food when serving; it will add a spicy, floral top-note to any dish.
  • Cheese should be wrapped in parchment and kept in an airtight glass container rather than suffocated in plastic. This lets the cheese breathe and keeps it fresh longer.
  • Buy a roll of parchment paper – it’s the best thing ever. Actually, scratch that – pre-cut parchment sheets are the best thing ever.
  • Don’t buy teflon anything. It’s not good for you, it doesn’t prevent sticking, and it will get scratched and, if you’re like I was in college, you will eat rice flecked with flakes of black teflon and spend the rest of your days worrying that they gave you cancer.
  • Plastic is scary stuff. Try to avoid having it touch your food at any stage of the game.
  • When you’re cooking a recipe that calls for cheese, prepare the cheese last lest you “snack” on all of it before it makes it into the dish. (Guilty.)
  • Yes, chard stems are edible, but you have to cook the crap out of them first.
  • When you cook pasta, the water should be “salty, like the mediterranean sea.” This will make your noodles more flavorful from the get go.
  • Beware of the latest fad diet or superfood; what’s considered healthy today may be thought of differently tomorrow. Everything in moderation is proven time after time to be the answer to what is truly healthy.
  • Get a good, sharp chef’s knife and know how to use it. (Tuck those fingertips!)
  • When cutting round vegetables like onions, try to get a flat edge as soon as you can. This will make cutting safer.
  • Salt things at the beginning of the cooking process (except beans and legumes).
  • Make a list of your favorite quick meals and keep it on your fridge or in your phone so you can pick up ingredients when you’re passing by a grocer. Here are some of mine: Quesadillas stuffed with sauteed greens. A couple of different smoothies. Green salads topped with protein: beans, feta cheese, smoked fish, chicken breast or hard-boiled eggs all work. Toast topped with melted cheese, sauerkraut, avocado and pesto. When I’m sick, bouillon and a handful of rice boiled until tender and mixed with a spoonful of miso and handful of spinach leaves hits the spot. For healthy snacks, I like apples and sharp cheddar or salted almond butter, and seedy GF crackers with hummus or avocado. And for late-night study snacks, popcorn tossed with olive oil, curry powder, nutritional yeast and garlic powder is the best. And kombucha diluted with fizzy water is the best soda substitute.
  • When you have a few spare hours on the weekend, make a big batch of something hearty that you can eat for a few days, like a pot of soup, a curry, or a baked pasta. They just get better as they hang out in the fridge.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

The mother in me wants to ship Cierra back to college with a pan of this pasta, but I’ll just have to settle for sharing the recipe and some photos here.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

I’ve had an insatiable hankering for any type of pasta with good red sauce for the last few months, and this is my current favorite. I’ve made it at least half a dozen times, working out the kinks as I’ve gone, and we just crave it more and more. It’s pretty classic, but it gets a kick from good oregano and chili flakes (both from Spice Society), and the stems and leaves from two big bunches of chard. It’s rather like a lasagne without the fuss of those pesky wide noodles that like to stick together.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

A few key ingredients really make this dish. Start with a good pasta, and cook it until it’s still quite firm, firmer than you would want to eat. It gets tossed with hot sauce and baked for 15-20 minutes, absorbing more moisture from the sauce and softening further, so undercooking it in the first stage helps prevent it from falling apart too much. Next, look for tomato puree or passata, or crushed tomatoes, that have been preserved in glass jars rather than cans. I’ve found that these taste a thousand times more fresh and flavorful than their tinned counterparts. I’ve listed my favorites down below. And lastly, ricotta, particularly when baked, can either taste watery and metallic or like the dumplings of angels. Always get the best stuff you can find; it should be thick and off-white, dense and creamy with large curds, and you should want to eat it right out of the container. I’ve linked to my favorites in the recipe below.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}What are you cooking this month? Snap a photo and tag it on Instagram #eatgreen2016 for a chance to win one of five delicious boxes of organic spices from Spice Society.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

Cheesy Baked Chard Rigatoni {gluten-free}
Yields: 8 servings
 
Cheesy, vegetarian, gluten-free baked pasta deliciousness adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Old-School Baked Ziti. A few good ingredients will make this dish extra-delicious: gluten-free pasta, tomatoes preserved in glass jars rather than cans, and whole-milk ricotta. I’ve linked to my favorites of each below. If you don’t have chard handy, use spinach or another green in its place and skip the business about the stems.
Ingredients
  • 2 bunches Swiss chard, any color
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano (or handful basil leaves, chopped)
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 32-36 ounces (about 4 cups / 1 liter, or a little more) canned or jarred tomato passata, puree, or crushed tomatoes (I like a combination of this one, which is extra-thick, and this one)
  • 12 ounces (340 g) dry gluten-free rigatoni, penne, or other large tubular pasta (I use this)
  • 8 ounces (2 cups / 225 g) grated dry, whole-milk mozzarella
  • 2 ounces (¾ cup / 55 g) lightly packed grated parmesan
  • 12-16 ounces (340 g) best-quality whole-milk ricotta (I like this one)
Instructions
  1. Position a rack in upper third of the oven and preheat to 425ºF.
  2. Rinse the chard leaves and stems well of any sandy grit. Use a sharp knife to slice the leaves off of the chard stems. Tear the leaves into large pieces and set aside. Slice the stems thinly crosswise, about ¼ - ½-inch thick. If either are still sandy, soak them separately in bowls of cool water, swishing occasionally and letting the sand fall to the bottom, then lift out the leaves / stems and shake dry.
  3. Place the oil in a wide, non-reactive skillet large enough to hold all of the sauce and place over medium heat until the oil shimmers. Add the chard stems, onion, garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden and the chard stems are soft, about 15 minutes. Add the passata or crushed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is quite thick, 15 - 20 minutes, or longer if needed.
  4. While the sauce cooks, fill a large pot partway with water and 1 heaping tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Add the rigatoni and cook, stirring occasionally, until still quite firm, about 2-3 minutes short of al dente. The pasta will cook further when the sauce is added and we don’t want it to get soggy. When the pasta is done, drain it and rinse briefly with cool water to stop the cooking. Drain well and set aside.
  5. Put the chard leaves in the now empty pot, add a splash of water, cover the pot, and set over a medium-low flame. Cook until the chard is wilted and bright green, 3-5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Drain the chard, rinse with cool water, and squeeze dry; it will have reduced dramatically in volume. Chop coarsely.
  6. In a large bowl, toss together the pasta and sauce. Place half of this mixture in a 9x13-inch pan or other large baking vessel and cover with all of the chard. Dollop with all the ricotta and sprinkle with half of the parmesan and mozzarella. Cover with the remaining pasta and sprinkle with the remaining parmesan, then the mozzarella. (Hint: the more messy pasta ends you leave sticking out all over the place, the more crispy edges you’ll have to eat.)
  7. Place in the oven and bake until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is bronzed, 15-20 minutes. Serve hot, finished with a little extra parmesan and oregano if you like.
  8. Leftovers keep well, refrigerated airtight, for up to 5 days. Reheat in a 350ºF oven until hot.

cheesy baked chard rigatoni {gluten-free}

27 thoughts on “Cheesy Baked Chard Rigatoni {gluten-free}”

  1. baked ziti is so cozy! and this sounds like it has the perfect amount of chard; enough so that it’s healthier and you get your greens in, but not so much that it’s everywhere (i made a squash and chard lasagna once, and it was a lot healthier tasting than anyone wanted).

  2. Yes! Yes to loving up the college-age niece. I have one myself and wish I could cook her dinner a lot more often than I get to. And yes to hot cheesy baked pasta, and good ricotta (so easy to make!) and NO TEFLON. Beautiful post!

  3. Omg Alanna this is the sweetest!!! Reading through all those tips made me feel like I had my own cooking goddess version of Lorelei in my life bestowing all her wisdom upon me. Thank you for sharing all of that wonderful advice with all of us!! Cierra is super lucky to have such a hip, awesome aunt like you! And this pasta looks DELICIOUS. I recently received a bag of fancy rigatoni from Eataly and have been saving it for a worthy occasion–I think this pasta bake is it!

  4. Alanna,

    Thank you for being such a wonderful aunt to Cierra! Considering that she did not get her love of cooking from me, I am grateful for all the support and healthy guidance you have given her around cooking and baking. I love the beautiful and fun connection between you two.

    Let’s go visit her in New York!

  5. I love these photos, this recipes, and your tips! I have one to add – parchment sheets are one of my obsessions. You can buy them in packs which are pre-cut to match the size of various baking pans. They are so easy to work with! Cierra is lucky to have you; I wish I’d had more of a cooking role model.

    1. Parchment sheets to the rescue! Thanks Jennifer – I updated my list. :) I HATE cutting down rolls of parchment to fit. I’ve had a huge industrial box of full sheet pieces of parchment that I’ve been working through for years now (#spoiled) but I’ll be turning to those precut sheets next. Thanks a million for the tip!

  6. Yes, yes, yes to your tips! Especially a good knife, salt and pepper, and quick and easy healthy meals that will keep you going into the wee hours of the morning when you need to cram.
    Also, yes, yes, yes to baked rigatoni! My inner cheese monster wants to leap into this page and eat the whole dish by herself. What a gorgeous, comforting, ‘Mum’ dish :)

  7. I ran here because of that incredible baked rigatoni (my favorite!!!), but oh my gosh, this story captured my heart. I love this so much. You are one amazing aunt. (And also, THIS BAKED RIGATONI.) I love everything about this, Alanna. Thank you for brightening my week!

  8. I envy your having a grown-up niece. My oldest nephew is just about to start kindergarten, and while I adore them to bits, I can’t bond with them the way you do with your niece. What an awesome aunt you are. And thanks for this yummy baked rigatoni recipe.

  9. Alanna, everything about this post is amazing.The tips, as college student moving out into a house that isn’t the one I grew up in for the first time next week, are worth their weight in gold (especially your fave quick meals with a list on your phone, and making something hearty on the weekend!) and I will be making this baked rigatoni for SURE this year. Love that it includes your greens right in it! Your photos make me just want to dig right in.

  10. Days with loved ones are never long enough! And goodbyes … I can’t handle them most times! I’m glad you got to spend a day with your lovely niece. Those vegan burgers sound delicious! And this rigatoni? Totally going on my meal list for next week. Cheers! :D

  11. All the advice you share here rings so true – I wish I had an aunt like you to pass these things along when I was her age! We went through a phase of making so much pasta with swiss chard, and this post just reminds me of how good a combination that is. Plus, baked rigatoni? It’s absolutely perfect for wintery weather. I also looooooove any GG reference, yay! <3

  12. Hi Alana,
    I made this last night, and like all of your recipes I have made (many!) , it was delicious. Unfortunately, my fiancé (who normally does clean-up if I’ve cooked at night and want to sleep) covered it but forgot to put it in the fridge. I’ve concluded it must be tossed due to the tomatoes and ricotta, but the internet (at least a quick search) was pretty vague and contradictory on this. The list you made for Cierra was super useful, and I want to suggest that in a future post you might cover common food safety in a similar format for myself and other newer cooks who read your blog regularly–and maybe a fresher for more experienced cooks!

    1. Oh nooooooooo! That’s awful! You’re right, safer to toss it than to risk getting sick – food poisoning is absolutely the worst. If it were me, I would eat it, but I’d be sure to get portions really hot (higher than 170ºF for at least 30 seconds) to kill any bacteria that might be hanging about. The initial bake killed anything that might have been in there, and covering the dish would have prevented bacteria from dropping in from the air. Reheating it past the danger zone would make it even safer. But if you’re nervous, of course throw it out – better safe than sorry!

      I LOVE the idea of covering some basic food safety tips – thanks for that suggestion!

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