Ink on my Apron: Smoked Sausage, Mushroom, and Spinach Tortiglioni Bake
Comfort food, to me, is accessible, and also possesses that much sought-after ability to be easy to assemble in advance.
Growing up, my mum’s lasagne was the epitome of culinary accomplishment and also the cause of much envy within my friend circle. She was one of the few Indian mothers who dabbled (rather adeptly, might I add) in continental cuisine. This level of skill and comfort may have had to do with the fact that she was shipped off to a British boarding school in a little hill station in south India - where she was initiated into an alien world of beans on toast, rice pudding, and rhubarb crumble - at a very young age.
My sister and I have the fondest memories of coming home from school every evening to a surprise waiting for us on the countertop. Retro jammy Swiss rolls, baked cheesecakes with just the right amount of wobble, moist sponges with a delicate buttercream icing and moreish caramelly shortbread slices were all rolled out with enviable ease. Her lasagne though, was a treat reserved to mark the end of examinations, special play dates, and dinner parties. In retrospect, I realise how she was well ahead of her time, insisting on making her tomato sauce from scratch and relying on memory and instinct over YouTube or Instagram video prompts.
Funny thing is, for a dish that played such a large role in my childhood, I can’t remember the last time I arm twisted my mum into making lasagne. I have, however, carried forward the love for this dish in various other avatars and it is perhaps the single factor that constantly inspires me to rack my brains and think of new ways to rustle up a “pasta bake”. I mean, what’s not to love about picking various components based on what you have on hand – from zeroing in on a pasta of preference based on size, shape, or its ability to soak up and do justice to a sauce, to conceiving a filling that will pander to all palates.
Please the picky eaters in your life who can think of nothing worse than tomatoes and give the red sauce a miss. Opt instead for an alfredo, pesto, carbonara or – my personal favourite these days – make-up-as-you- go with whatever you have on hand and finish off with a heavy-handed dusting of cheese before popping into the oven to bake.
Comfort food, to me, is accessible, and also possesses that much sought-after ability to be easy to assemble in advance. For those eager to not be that hostess relegated to a hidden kitchen while guests look for ways to amuse themselves, a good pasta bake can be the party trick you never knew you needed. It can also serve as a great midweek treat for the kids or lazy weekend dinner. I’ve made a hearty smoked sausage, mushroom, and spinach tortiglioni bake with a creamy béchamel sauce to bring it all together. Vegetarians can leave out the sausage and double the quantity of mushrooms for an equally satisfying option. This is a bake that makes no bones about being positively sinful, and neither should you for wanting a cheeky pick-me-up every now and again!
Smoked Sausage, Mushroom and Spinach Tortiglioni Bake
2 ½ cups tortiglioni
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white onion, finely diced
6 garlic cloves, finely diced
½ green pepper, finely diced
10 button mushrooms, diced
5 jumbo sausages (I used a variety that was smoked with cheese and thyme. I’d highly recommend a smoked variety because it adds a depth to the dish)
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (a blend that included chilli, basil, thyme &rosemary)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt (this is bearing in mind I used a smoked variety of sausages that were very salty)
A handful of baby spinach leaves
50g plain flour
Pinch of salt and pepper to season
1) Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C/180 degrees C Fan/Gas 6.
2) Cook the tortiglioni in a pan of salted boiling water (with a tablespoon of olive oil) according to package instructions and set aside.
3) Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Sauté the onions for about 6-7 minutes.
4) Add the garlic and sauté for 4 minutes. Next, add the peppers and sauté for 4 mins.
5) Turn up the heat ever so slightly and add the mushrooms. Sauté for 3 minutes.
6) Add the sausages along with Italian seasoning, black pepper, and salt. Sauté for 5-6 minutes.
7) Remove from the heat and toss in the baby spinach. Stir for about 2 minutes until the leaves are wilted and then set aside the mixture to cool.
8) Melt the butter in a saucepan.
9) Add the flour and stir to mix. Cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes.
10) Slowly add the milk bit by bit, whisking as you add to prevent any lips from forming. Season with salt and pepper as per preference and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes till the mixture thickens slightly and then remove from the heat.
11) Take a medium-sized ovenproof baking dish. Start assembling with one layer of tortiglioni. Next add a layer of the sausage and mushroom mixture, followed by a layer of béchamel sauce. Repeat again starting with another layer of tortiglioni, followed by the sausage and mushroom filling and béchamel sauce.
12) Finish off with a generous handful of grated mild Cheddar.
13) Pop in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until bubbling.