This baked penne with turkey is an easy, cheesy pasta bake that your family will love. In this healthier version of baked ziti, lean ground turkey is given the sausage treatment with fennel, thyme, and red pepper flakes. The seasoned meat is simmered in an aromatic tomato sauce and finished with a splash of heavy cream. That creamy meat sauce is tossed with penne pasta, topped with cheese, browned under a broiler and devoured!
I’ve always been impressed by my mom’s unique cooking talent. Mom is a fantastic cook when things are planned and groceries abound but she’s even more impressive when the pantries are bare. She can saunter into an empty kitchen and whip up a delicious dinner out of thin air. She can coax flavor out of that forgotten pound of beef tucked away in the freezer or elevate chicken breast with an impromptu mixture of spices that rival that of any restaurant. No matter how scarce her resources, my mom will always spoil her family with a hot delicious meal inspired by her endless creativity.
I learned many things from my mom’s kitchen but I always had a deeper interest in “proper” culinary techniques. When life was more simple I could spend hours dissecting Julia Child’s instructions for the perfect roast chicken or confer with Larousse Gastronomique before cooking a slab of beef. Things have changed and my full time job, cooking blog, and spending time with my loved ones now rank higher on my list of life priorities. I’ll always love to experiment in the kitchen and spend hours laminating the perfect croissants but those activities are now relegated to quiet weekends and holidays. To prepare a hot, healthy meal on a Tuesday evening I’m better served by the lessons learned in my mom’s kitchen than anything a top chef could teach me. This baked penne with turkey is the result of adopting my mom’s get-it-done attitude toward weeknight cooking. If you’re short on time and want something healthy-ish but delicious, this pasta is the perfect recipe for you. Cook it tonight or save it to your Pinterest board for later.
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (add 1 teaspoon if you like heat)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup white wine
28 ounce plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
2 bay leaves
½ cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
¾ cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 cups shredded mozzarella
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
Heat olive oil in a large dutch oven or heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat until the oil begins to ripple, 2 minutes.
Add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt, cook until the onion starts turning translucent, 3-5 minutes.
Add the carrots and cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.
Add the turkey and cook, breaking up the meat into small pieces uses a wooden spoon.
Cook until the turkey is no longer pink and liquid has evaporated, 5-8 minutes.
Add the garlic, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, thyme, fennel, basil, and red pepper flakes. Stir, and cook until fragrant, 2 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring the paste into the meat. Cook until the paste turns a dark red color, 4-5 minutes.
Add the plum tomatoes to the meat and use the wooden spoon (or a potato masher) to break the tomatoes into small pieces.
Drop the bay leaf into the tomato meat sauce.
Add the heavy cream to the pan, bring the sauce to a simmer and lower the heat to low. Simmer until thickened and flavorful, at least 30 minutes.
Occasionally stir the sauce while it simmers, using your wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pot to make sure the sauce doesn’t stick and burn.
While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta.
Add salt to a large pot of water (about 3 tablespoons or until the water tastes like the sea). Bring the water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions, until just al dente.
Drain the cooked pasta and add it directly to the sauce, tossing to coat all the noodles.
Tip the parmesan into the pot and stir to combine with the meat and pasta.
Transfer the pasta into a broiler safe casserole dish greased with olive oil. If you cooked your sauce in a dutch oven you don’t need to transfer the food to a casserole dish; you can broil the pasta directly in your dutch oven.
Scatter the shredded cheese and panko bread crumbs over the pasta and place under the broiler until the cheese is melted, 3-5 minutes.
Allow the pasta to cool slightly and serve.
This recipe was designed to be a time efficient weeknight meal and to that end it is actually broiled briefly and not baked. If your schedule allows more cooking time you can undercook the pasta slightly in step 13 (drain it when it has cooked for 1 minute less than the lowest recommended time). Then bake the cheese topped casserole in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and hot. You can still broil the pasta for the last couple minutes to get that crispy top.