Skillet-Baked Pasta with Crisp Ham, Sweet Potato and Tuscan Kale

Tony writes:  I plan meals based on how the dishwashing situation will look after the fact; yes, I’m a lazy loser. But the real loser in this equation is my love of baked pastas, which has gone unrequited for too long. As lazy people are wont to do, I’ve been thinking about an easier way (in this case, around the starchy-gunk-stuck-to-the-baking-dish problem). The skillet has become my focus: if I bake the pasta in the same pan as the  sauce, I cut my dish total in half and also speed up the assembly process. The method becomes more of a toss-and-sprinkle rather than a deliberate step-by-step assembly. Since coming up with this idea, I have tested out the method a couple of times and I’m loving it. The combination below is my favorite: kinda healthy and very fallish. Here’s how:

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The good stuff: Superfoods are everywhere these days, which is all good and well, provided the meal actually tastes good. My preference is for pairings where the good-for-you actually goes together. This one is a good example: the  sweetness of the yams and the salty ham play off each other while the Tuscan kale, more delicate than its curly cousin, adds color and the healthy.

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The method: This technique limits the cooking to 2 pots, which is my kind of preparation. Saute diced pieces of hamsteak (I picked up my favorite: Vermont Smoke and Cure) until browned and crisp. Then add strips of Tuscan kale and saute until wilted. Simultaneously, in a large pot of boiling water, blanch the sweet potatoes until just tender, then use the same water for cooking the pasta. Combine the pasta and sweet potatoes with the sauteed ham mixture, sprinkle with Parmigiano, top with slices of fresh mozzarella and bake until the cheese melts and browns.

The recipe: Serve 4.

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1. Get prepped: First things first: bring a large pot of water to a boil and heat the oven to 450F. Then, while both are heating, slice 3/4 lb. ham steak in 1/4-inch pieces. Square off 1 large sweet potato (about 3/4 lb.) and cut in  1/2-inch dice. Stem 1 bunch Tuscan kale (aka “dinosaur kale”; about 1 lb), coarsely chop, soak in cold water, and then spin dry.

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2. Saute the ham and greens: Set a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tbs. olive oil and, once it’s shimmering hot, add the diced ham. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the ham browns and renders any fat, about 5 min. Add the washed kale, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. each S+P and cook, tossing, until the greens just wilt, about 2 min. Remove from the heat.

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3. Meanwhile, blanch the sweet potatoes: Stir a generous sprinkling of kosher salt (1 to 2 Tbs.) into the boiling water. Add the diced sweet potatoes and cook until soft, but toothy, 2 to 3 min. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a large plate to cool.

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4. Cook the pasta: Add 3/4 lb. dried pasta (preferably a small, sturdy shape like penne or cellentani) to the boiling water and cook, stirring, until the pasta is tender, but toothy, about 10 min. Drain well.

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5. Toss, top and bake: Add the pasta and sweet potato to the skillet (with the ham and greens) as well as 1 cup grated Parmigiano2 scallions (thinly sliced), and 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme.  Season with S+P to taste, then top with 6 oz. fresh mozzarella (thinly sliced). Bake until the cheese melts and browns, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

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