This dish is a bit of celebration of things I didn’t used to like, but have come to terms within the last few years. I’ve always associated sausages with the fatty, odd-tasting beef ‘sangas’ that grace the typical Aussie barbeque.
Celery is just something I never understood until I started adding it to stews and soups. The little bit in this recipe adds a very definite layer of flavour. I’ve also overcome the hassle of all the washing and chopping involved in celery by prepping a whole bunch at a time and freezing a container of pre-diced celery. I just pull some out and throw it straight in the pan and it’s fine – plus there’s a lot less waste.
Then there are pasta bakes, which, to be honest I always thought were just a bit tacky. I thought they were a bit of a cheat food – you know, add a jar of cheap sauce to some pasta and throw in the oven – ick. (NB I’m aware that there are several tinned ingredients in the list below, but I do live in the real world and I truly couldn’t live without tinned tomatoes and chickpeas.)
Anyway, after visiting Italy I realised that pasta al forno was actually quite traditional, and could be really delicious. In this dish the combination of rich tomato sauce, spicy sausages and creamy chickpeas is really divine.
Now, ingredients. There are three things you need to spend money on for this dish: the pasta, fresh parmesan and the sausages. I think that top-quality pasta is always worth buying, because even at $5 for 500g it’s an incredibly cheap meal by serve. I look for pasta made from durum semolina. If you can’t tell what it’s made of, the cooking time on the packet can be a good indicator of quality – anything less than 10 minutes is a bit suspicious.
Similarly, good parmesan isn’t cheap, but it goes such a long way that per serve the cost is absolutely tiny. Meanwhile the sausages are here to give loads of flavour, so something spicy with top-quality meat is really worth buying. If you can’t get spicy sausages, add some chilli and paprika to the sauce.
I did a couple of quick sums and even with really nice pasta and sausages this dish cost less than $2.50 AUD per generous serve, which is cheap by almost anyone’s standards. It’s also very simple. I know the process and list of ingredients look long, but I’ve spelled this one out a bit because I’m thinking of a few friends who are beginner cooks with this one!
400g ‘Italian-style’ sausages (spicy, with a mix of pork and beef)
½ red onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
½ stick celery, finely diced
2 x 400g tins tomatoes, chopped
500g tomato passata (tomato puree – not paste)
1 x 400g tin chickpeas, drained
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
500g dried pasta (large penne are great)
200g fresh mozzarella (sometimes called bocconcini here in Aus)
Heat a large pot and add a little oil. When the oil is hot, use scissors to snip the sausages into small pieces, dropping the segments straight into the pan. Cook the sausage pieces in batches, browning all over, and remove onto a plate – instant meatballs!
If the bottom of the pot is too burned add a little water and scrape the worst off then pour it out. Add a little more oil and then the onions. Once they’ve softened add the celery and garlic and cook down for a few minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic.
Add the chopped tomatoes then cover the pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the tomato passata, sugar and vinegar. Cover, bring to the boil again and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Add the sausages, chickpeas and oregano and season with pepper – usually the sausages will be salty enough for the whole dish, particularly once the parmesan is added, so I don’t add any other salt. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the pasta until it’s almost al dente (around two-thirds of the time quoted on the packet).
Now, I prepared this the day before I wanted to eat it, so I let the sauce and pasta cool down before I assembled everything. If you are doing that just make sure you coat the pasta in a little oil just after draining it, otherwise it’ll all stick together. If you want it now, ignore that – but I have to say that I think the overnight stopover really adds to this dish.
To assemble, take a deep baking dish and start with a thin layer of sauce. Add a single layer of pasta, then more sauce, a layer of mozzarella and a light grating of parmesan. Repeat until you end up with a final layer of cheese on top.
Bake at 180°C for around 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and crispy. Serve with a load of salad and enjoy!