1. Pick a Pasta
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; cook 1 pound of pasta (choose from these) until very al dente, 2 or 3 minutes less than the label directs; drain.
* Large shells
2. Make the Sauce
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 4 sliced garlic cloves and a pinch of red pepper flakes; cook until the garlic is golden. Crush a 28-ounce can and a 15-ounce can of plum tomatoes into the skillet with your hands; rinse out each can with 1/2 cup water and add the water to the skillet. Add 4 large basil sprigs; simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened, 15 minutes. Discard the basil; season the sauce with salt. (Alternatively, heat 4 cups prepared tomato sauce.)
3. Choose Your Mix-ins
While the sauce simmers, prepare 3 cups meat and/or vegetables (in any combination).
* Italian sausage, crumbled and cooked
* Meatballs, cooked and quartered
* Pepperoni, chopped
* Rotisserie chicken, shredded
* Hard-boiled eggs, chopped
* Roasted red peppers, sliced
* Frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and chopped
* Zucchini, sliced and sautéed
* Mushrooms, sliced and sautéed
* Eggplant, sliced and sautéed
* Fennel, sliced and sautéed
* Spinach, chopped and sautéed
* Escarole, chopped and sautéed
* Black or green pitted olives, chopped
4. Flavor the Sauce
Stir one of the following ingredients into your sauce, then add your meat and/or vegetable mix-ins.
For herb sauce: 1 cup each chopped basil and parsley
For creamy sauce: 1 cup fresh ricotta
For meat sauce: 3/4 pound pancetta, diced and browned
5. Pick Your Cheese
Prepare 3 cups melting cheese and 1 cup grating cheese.
* Fresh mozzarella, cubed
* Mild provolone, shredded
* Italian fontina, shredded
* Young asiago, shredded
* Parmesan, grated
* Pecorino, grated
* Ricotta salata, grated
6. Bake the Casserole
Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and half of each cheese. Spread in an oiled 3-to-4-quart baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the pasta. Bake, uncovered, until browned, about 15 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.
Be sure to undercook the pasta for your casserole; it will soften in the oven.
Photographs by Lisa Shin