Back-to-school family meal: Italian chicken, pasta, and tomato bake

Fresh with spinach and herbs, hearty with pasta and chicken, rich with tomatoes and cheesy with mozzarella, this is a great, lighter make-ahead meal.

The Runaway Spoon
A pasta bake with fresh spinach and herbs, chicken, tomatoes, and mozzarella makes a quick meal for weeknight dinners.

I’m not presenting here a recipe that is going to change lives or set the culinary world on fire. But this is the time of year for basics, as we move from the easy days of summer to the frantic start of a new school year and as the fresh summer produce fades before the autumn bounty begins.

It’s a great time to gather around the table for a satisfying meal, but not such a great time to spend hours in the kitchen or doing the dishes. A cutting board, a pot and a baker is all you need to put a meal on the table that anyone can enjoy. Fresh with spinach and herbs, hearty with pasta and chicken, rich with tomatoes and cheesy with mozzarella, this is a great, lighter make-ahead meal.

You could easily substitute Italian sausage for the chicken, or add more herbs or some red pepper flakes for a little kick. Whole wheat pasta works well and frozen chopped onions are a simple way to cut a little work from the recipe. Keep these ingredients handy and your close to a cozy family dinner anytime.

Italian chicken, pasta, and tomato bake
Serves 6

12 ounces cavatappi or fusilli pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 chicken breasts
1 (10 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 small white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup finely chopped basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped oregano
salt and pepper
1 (about 4-1/2 ounce) ball fresh mozzarella
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1. Cook the pasta in a large pot of well salted water according to the package directions. Drain the pasta in a colander, then stir through 1 tablespoon olive oil to keep the past from sticking together.

2. While the pasta is cooking, cut the chicken into small bite sized pieces. Put the thawed spinach in a clean tea towel and ring out most of the moisture. When the pasta is done, return the pot to medium heat and pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion, and when it begins to soften and turn glossy, add the chicken and cook, stirring, until it begins to turn opaque. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes, then pour in the tomatoes and add the tomato paste, spinach, basil and oregano. Stir until everything is combined and well distributed (pay particular attention to the spinach – it tends to clump together). Cover the pot and cook for about 5 minutes.

3. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the drained pasta, about 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt and generous grinds of black pepper until the noodles are coated and everything is well distributed. Spread the pasta in a well-greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish and leave to cool slightly.

4. When the pasta has cooled, tear the mozzarella into small pieces and tuck it down into the pasta evenly throughout the casserole and leave some peeking out of the top. Sprinkle over the grated Parmesan. The casserole can be cooled, covered and refrigerated at this point up to one day.

5. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the casserole until heated through and the cheese is melted, about 20 minutes.

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