Please any crowd with this recipe for chicken parmesan meatballs nestled in pasta with bite-sized balls of mozzarella and baked in a luscious tomato cream sauce.
I’m going to be completely honest: it’s Monday morning, I’ve had two cups of coffee, and yet I’m as inexplicably exhausted as I was last Friday, actually I think moreso. I’m not complaining – far from it. We had a terrific weekend, starting with going out for pizza Friday night, several outings to local parks and playgrounds, because that’s what is genuinely fun when you have a toddler, and a totally random fast-food dinner Sunday night, because life is all about balance and I’m OK with my balance including the occasional french fries and milkshake.
Today, though, I’m looking forward to a nice healthy salad for lunch (rocket lettuce and smoked salmon with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, my latest simple lunch obsession). I wish I could say I’m also looking forward to the paperwork and errands I need to somehow smash into the day, but really I’m more excited about the hour, still so very far off, when said toddler drifts off sleep and I most likely collapse into a heap myself.
In any event, you’re not here for my painstakingly obvious observations (what, being a parent is tiring!? you don’t say!). You’re here for a new delicious recipe to feed your own tribe, and that much I can definitely deliver.
This chicken parm pasta bake is the ultimate crowd-pleasing comfort food. An accessible twist on a classic, serving up chicken parm in meatball form is sure to elicit smiles and appreciation from your hungry crew. Or at least satisfied bellies and requests for seconds, maybe even with a please or a thank you.
[clickToTweet tweet=”What’s for dinner? How about this chicken parmesan pasta with mini meatballs and mozzarella? ” quote=”What’s for dinner? How about this chicken parmesan pasta with mini meatballs and mozzarella? “]
In truth, we’re combining pasta, creamy tomato sauce, and meatballs packed with parmesan and Italian seasoning, throwing in some stretchy bites of baked mozzarella, and topping it off with basil and more parmesan … it does not take a rocket scientist to conclude this is going to be a winner. I’ve adapted this recipe from a old favorite by Rachael Ray, which calls for similar meatballs stuffed with mozzarella balls. Those are terrific with salad and some bread on the side, but deconstructing the meatballs a bit for the sake of ease and to make them smaller, almost bite-sized, to fit in a hearty pasta bake? No one is going to object to that!
To make this dish faster and weeknight-worthy, you could absolutely sub the tomato cream sauce for marinara or another favorite jarred pasta sauce. Just combine a large jar of sauce with the cooked pasta, browned meatballs, and mozzarella, then bake as directed.
But, if you can squeeze out the few extra minutes to make your own sauce, I highly recommend it. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is, and there’s something about a luscious, from-scratch tomato cream sauce that takes everything to the next level. It’s what really makes this dish crave-worthy to me.
Chicken Parmesan Pasta Bake
- 1 lb. farfalle rotini, or other pasta shapes
- 1 lb. ground chicken or turkey
- 1/2 cup panko
- 1/3 cup + 1/2 cup grated parmesan divided
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 + 1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes divided
- 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 3 cloves garlic minced or pressed
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- approximately 1 cup mozzarella cheese I used small balls of cheese - look for bocconcini or ciliegine; you could take larger portions of mozzarella and chop or shred it into your desired size, though the resulting texture may be slightly different
- handful of fresh basil leaves roughly chopped
- In a large pot, boil water and cook pasta for 5-6 minutes, just until it has begun to soften. Drain and set aside.
- To make the meatballs, combine ground meat, panko, 1/3 cup parmesan, egg, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and 1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes in a large bowl. Mix until evenly combined, then form into small meatballs, each about 1” in diameter.
- Warm olive oil in a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the meatballs, leaving room around each one. Cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, then begin to gently turn the meatballs, so that they brown evenly on several sides. (Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to do this in batches - it’s worthwhile to take your time, because if the meatballs are too crowded, they become difficult to turn without breaking apart.) When meatballs are browned, remove to a plate and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- To make the sauce, add the whole tomatoes to a blender or food processor, reserving the liquid. Puree, adding just a bit of the reserved liquid if necessary to achieve a smooth consistency.
- In the same skillet you used for the meatballs, melt the butter, then add the onion and cook for about 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste, garlic, and 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, and cook for about 30 seconds, just until fragrant.
- Stir in the pureed tomatoes. Lower the heat to a simmer, and allow to cook for 6-8 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and stir in the cream.
- Add cooked pasta, mozzarella, and basil to the sauce. Stir gently to combine and break up any clumps of pasta. Nestle the browned meatballs into the pasta, top with 1/2 cup grated parmesan, and bake for 20-25 minutes. Garnish with additional basil, if desired, and serve right away.