The very first post of 2012 should be sort of healthy, shouldn't it? Consider this a gateway dish to ease into the healthy January phase. It is a dish of baked pasta and there is Gorgonzola cheese in it, but there are also nutritious, little Brussels sprouts and chunks of apples. Unlike most baked pastas, there's no thick, rich bechamel sauce coating every bite. Instead, the pasta and Brussels sprouts are tossed with crumbled blue cheese, or whatever easy-melting cheese you prefer, and some of the water in which the pasta was boiled. It's lighter than you might expect. The dish came from the Mark Bittman blog, but I couldn't help making a couple of changes. The original was made with figs, but there's a note that pears, apples, and cranberries would all do the job of adding a little sweetness. I had some apples in the refrigerator waiting to be used, so they were my choice. I also opted to saute the Brussels sprouts rather than boil them as suggested because I can't resist browned edges on Brussels sprouts. Clearly, this can be customized in countless ways, but with the basic pieces in place, you'll get a quick dish that delivers a great range of flavors.
Since everything cooks quickly before being mixed and placed in a baking dish, you should chop everything you need before starting. While the rigatoni cooked for a few minutes, and it shouldn't be cooked until done but only half-way, I sauteed Brussels sprouts that had been trimmed and halved. I also added some minced shallots to the saute pan. When the Brussels sprouts were nicely browned, I added two small, chopped apples. Most importantly, don't forget to save some of the pasta boiling water before draining the rigatoni. Then, toss the half-cooked rigatoni with the Brussels sprouts and apples and stir in the Gorgonzola crumbles. Add a few tablespoons of the pasta water and stir to combine. The pasta mixture should then be placed in an oiled baking dish and popped into a 400 degree F oven for 20 minutes. If it appears the pasta is becoming too dry in the oven, add a little more pasta water after 10 minutes of baking. When you remove the dish from the oven, top the pasta with chopped, toasted almonds.
Edges of the rigatoni pieces on top turned brown and crispy in the oven, and underneath, the pasta and Brussels sprouts were tender for a tasty contrast. The cheese melted into all the nooks and crannies, and the apples did their job of adding sweetness. There were bitter, savory, and sweet flavors, creamy cheese and nutty almonds, and I can't think of anything this dish was missing. It was a great way to begin the year, and I hope your 2012 is off to a good start as well.