Baked Orecchiette

I really lucked out with Bryan’s family, they are all great. I often listen to friends tell stories about their in-laws and feel lucky to have it so good. A few weeks ago, Bryan’s sister Heather came to visit. We were excited for her stay and we wanted to cook some good food for her— a sort of belated Christmas dinner. She’s a vegetarian and it got me thinking about dietary restrictions and menu planning. Menu selection is guided by things like preferences (Bryan hates blue cheese), food allergies (nuts!), or lifestyle choices (vegetarians). Preferences are the most common part of food planning for me, I naturally don’t cook things with ingredients that neither Bryan nor I like. Things get more complicated when there are more serious restrictions like no animal products, no dairy, no gluten…but I think these restrictions are excellent challenges for the home cook. My goal is to make food that everyone will enjoy. Quality and taste should never be sacrificed regardless of the restrictions you might have when planning the menu. I also don’t like when there is a separate dish for the person with restrictions on their diet, it is unnecessary and I really can’t imagine very many situations when it isn’t possible to make delicious, fresh and satisfying food regardless of the requirements of your diners.

So, back to Heather. Although this wasn’t much of a challenge since we’re a pretty meat-free home, I wanted to find a vegetarian dish that was delicious, easy to prepare and could be made ahead (who wants to be cooking when guests are over?). I found this recipe for baked Orecchiette in one of the most beautiful books from 2008, A Platter of Figs by David Tanis. The original recipe calls for the addition of some homemade pork sausage but Tanis brilliantly suggests that you can make this vegetarian by simply adding the sausage seasoning to the pasta. This was a real revelation, and a technique I plan to use again in other recipes. With crushed red pepper, fennel seeds and fresh rosemary the pasta did recall sausage. Heather said it tasted like we had taken the sausage out after cooking, which for her was a really good thing. The bottom line is that this is very, very delicious and I will definitely make it again.

The recipe makes about 6 generous servings. It really is best the day it is made, although I still enjoyed it the following day for lunch.

Orechiette al Forno (Adapted from a Davis Tanis recipe)

  • 1 pound orecchiette
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 pounds rapini (broccoli rabe), chard, or kale washed and stemmed
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • 1/2 pound fresh ricotta
  • Butter
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Grated pecorino

Cook 1 pound of pasta in heavily salted water until extremely al dente, about 8 minutes. Lift the pasta from the water and spread on baking sheets to cool; drizzle lightly with olive oil to keep it from sticking together.
Using the boiling water, blanch the greens for 1 minute or so. Drain in a colander. When they are cool, roughly chop the greens and set aside.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Warm the garlic in the oil, but don’t let it brown. Add the chopped greens, rosemary, fennel seeds and red pepper. Lightly salt the greens, stir them around the pan, and turn off the heat.
To assemble the dish, put the cooked pasta and cooked greens in a large bowl and mix gently. Add the ricotta and mix again.
Butter a shallow earthenware gratin dish. Put the pasta mixture in dish and sprinkle generously with grated pecorino. Cover and keep at room temperature for up to several hours.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Shortly before serving time, bake the pasta for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5 minutes more. Serve immediately.

33 comments to “Baked Orecchiette”

  1. What a smart idea. I feel like fennel seeds make everything better.

  2. Tim, sometimes it scares me how much our (great) minds think alike! I made a baked pasta dish a few months back with greens — almost a deconstructed lasagna. It was incredibly delicious but the photos came out so terribly (unlike yours) it will be hard to convince anyone else of that! Perhaps I’ll try yours next and hope my photo mojo will be back by then.

  3. Ha, that is funny Deb! What is even funnier is that I almost didn’t post this one because I didn’t really like the photos. But ultimately I decided it was too good to not share. Maybe baked pasta doesn’t photograph so well? (I know it can’t be us! ha)

  4. I love fennel. I usually only use it when I sprinkle it over butternut squash before baking (really good), but I’ve never used it in a pasta dish. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I’m a vegetarian personal chef and I don’t make a lot of pasta for my clients because so much of it requires last minute cooking. This looks like a great and hearty dish that they would enjoy putting in the oven. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great idea, using the sausage seasonings. This dish looks lovely. If only it wasn’t so warm here, because I suddenly have a craving for baked pasta :)

  7. Meat flavors without the meat. Great idea.

  8. So excited to visit… heard about you through Steph W.
    Your site is purty…..

  9. Welcome Caroline! Your site is pretty too and that carrot cake looks ridiculously good. I’ll be making it soon.

  10. Mmm. This looks so warm and comforting. I made a pasta dish with fennel very recently too. It really does add great flavor to pasta. Yum, thanks for sharing this delicious recipe.

  11. Something about this winter has really motivated me to do all sorts of baked pasta or strata dishes. This one looks yummy! Thanks!

  12. What a beautiful site…I found yours through

    Love this recipe too. I’m sure this is something even my picky 11 year old would love.

  13. Wow, this looks really good. I’ll bet if you added about 1/2 pound of sliced mushrooms of your choice to the saute of the garlic, greens etc., it would be even better! (I love dishes like this with cheeses and greens and mushrooms, in any combination!) Thanks for sharing!

  14. A few weeks ago, I made homemade orecchiette. I’ve still got a ball of dough frozen in my fridge and this might be the perfect opportunity to pull it out!

  15. Hi Momcat: Mushrooms would be a nice addition, good idea.

    Kasey: That would be amazing. I want to try making orecchiette at home.

  16. Oh very nice indeed….

  17. I made this for a potluck and ended up embarrassed as it sat untouched on people’s plates. I think the fennel seed was about 50% too much. I used the tablespoon the recipe called for and the taste was so strong as to be gag-inducing. Next time I think I would just skip the spices and use italian sausage. This was probably the worst dish I’ve made in recent memory :(

  18. Hi Lynne, I am sorry you didn’t like this recipe. I have made this multiple times and love it—I guess
    our tastes just differ on this one. Better luck next time!

  19. Sorry Tim–I didn’t mean to be grouchy :( I just can’t figure out what I did wrong. I followed the recipe to the letter, including making fresh ricotta (also your recipe which I love & have been using for a while!) but it just turned out so unappetizing. It looked just like the picture but no one ate it and to me it was overwhelmingly fennel-y. Is some fennel seed more potent than others maybe? The seeds I used were relatively fresh and I just gave them a quick zing in my spice grinder to smash them lightly. I wish I knew how I managed to bork this recipe–it looked great! :(

  20. PS. I have another batch of your Apple Jellies simmering on the stove and those I know are winners :)

  21. Hi Lynne,
    It is possible that you ground the seeds too much? When I make it I just sort of lightly crush the seeds, but they remain whole–not ground up at all. HMmmmmm. It is a mystery!

  22. I made this a few nights ago with rigatoni (what I had on hand) and thought it was fantastic. The fennel (which I love) gave the suggestion of sausage without the sausage.

    Because the rigatoni is so much larger I used less of it (like 3/4 lb) which worked out really well. Thanks Tim!

  23. This look so good I may play with it when I make it. I do want to maybe use some turkey or chicken sausage, fresh spinach, not sure if I can find the exact pasta at my grocery store but will try.

  24. I made this a couple of nights ago and it was such a success we polished off the lot. The flavours really did taste like sausage. I used French beans instead of greens, and forgot to crush the fennel seeds, but it tasted great. Will definitely make this again, thanks Tim.

  25. Is there any way to substitute the cheese/flavor for a lactose intolerant person other than soy cheese products? I absolutely LOVE fennel and orecchiette; this dish looks amazing…any ideas?

  26. Hey Sam,
    I eat cheese with almost every meal, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. Since there are so few ingredients in this dish, they all seem important. You could try adding another vegetable (butternut squash?) but it takes it in another direction. Sorry I’m not more helpful….let me know if you experiment and come up with something good!

  27. Just saw this recipe when I was trying to figure out what to do with the Chard in our CSA. Do you know if this freezes well? And would it be better to freeze before baking or after?

  28. Hi Bryna,
    I haven’t tried freezing, but my guess is that it won’t freeze well. There isn’t enough to it, and the ricotta will get weird. I would probably just saute and freeze the kale, if I were going to try anything. Then make the dish with frozen kale.

  29. Thanks for the swift reply!

  30. Hi Tim, I know this is weird but was heather a singing teacher who lived in Australia??

  31. Lavender- Ha! No, but that would be cool if she was. Our Heather does not sing and never lived in Australia. : )

  32. How did I only find your blog now?! I’ve been fast making up for lost time by perusing your wonderful archives. This was by far the most delicious baked pasta I’ve ever made – and also the quickest! Definitely going to make this again and again and again. I was sceptical of the sausage seasoning idea but I’m going to use that concept in so many dishes from now on. That fennel really made the meal.

  33. Sam, I just wanted to respond to your question about lactose-free versions. I was actually looking at this recipe and thinking I would probably sub a raw vegan alfredo for the cheese :) Sounded odd the first time I read about it, but I thought I’d give it a shot… O.O.M.G. … It was insane. By far the BEST alfredo I’ve ever had, and without the saturated fat & cholesterol (as well as mistreated animal friends). You soak almonds in water overnight, and blend with fresh garlic cloves, olive oil, cannelini beans, 1/8 onion, and nutritional yeast, for B-Vitamins and a cheesy taste. It is absolutely amazing. I have to go make some now…!!! lol. You can just Google “raw vegan alfredo” and read through different ones; even look on YouTube for videos. I really love blending in cilantro… Omg tastes amazing! :) And it’s a great chelator; traps & removes heavy metals from our bodies. Awesome side effect of delicious goodness. Have fun! (Sorry this is just a touch after the fact, I’m just now finding this, but thought I’d try commenting anyway :) Have fun trying it out :) )

    Also, I sing, but I don’t live in Australia either lol. Totally want to go visit though… Have a great day :)

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