Monday, October 12, 2009

Celebrating Italian Heritage Month: Pasta Bake Recipe

This recipe is a big favorite in my house and serves double duty as both our go to recipe for a potluck and when we have leftovers that need to be used up. The recipe basically consists of pasta, sauce (marinara, alfredo, vodka, etc.) and cheese. You can get fancy and add fresh herbs, veggies, cream, meat (prosciutto and Italian sausage work well), and pretty much whatever else you want and have laying around. The one rule to the recipe is that you can't go to the store for any of the ingredients, everything that goes into it has to already be laying around your house (the logic is that by going to the store and buying any of the ingredients, you're defeating the point of using up leftovers). There are some examples of a pasta bake recipes online, like baked ziti and this, but normally I just wing it and don't follow any recipe. Here is basically what I do:

1. Pre-heat oven to around 350 degrees F.

2. Grease a casserole dish. Size doesn't really matter except that if you want the pasta bake a little crispier use a shallow, large dish and if you'd rather it be more moist use a deep smaller dish (like a meatloaf pan).

3. Cook up whatever already opened box of pasta you have. Have half a box of penne sitting around? Use that. Farfalle? That works too. Rigatoni? Well, you've got the picture. If there is less than half in a box, consider mixing it up and finish up two boxes of pasta (just make sure the cook time is about the same for each kind) to make the half a box minimum. Tortellini and stuffed pastas also work well.

4. It have about half a jar of pasta sauce in your frig, pull it out and dump it in a large bowl. If you want to add anything special, this is where you would, but if you want meat or veggies in your pasta bake, cook it before you add it to the sauce in the bowl. Some mascarpone is a nice touch (about a cup will do, just eye ball it) and I like my food spicy so I'll add some red pepper flakes or Rooster sauce (if the pasta sauce you're using is an arrabiata, you don't need to add more spice). I'll also usually add some more garlic and/or onion.

5. Once the pasta is a little before al dente, remove it from the boiling water (reserve some pasta water) and add it to the sauce and whatever else you have in the bowl. Add in some cheese (mozzarella works well, so does the smooth asiago- NOT the crumbly kind). I add in LOTS of cheese because I love cheese, but you should just add however much cheese you like. You could also just not add any cheese at this step if you'd rather. Mix the pasta and sauce in the bowl and then dump in the greased casserole dish. Spread the mixture evenly in the dish.

6. Sprinkle the top with cheese. A smooth cheese and a crumbly cheese combo work well for this. I'll usually do about a handful or two of mozzarella and a fourth of a cup of parmesan.

7. Bake for about a half hour to forty minutes or until the cheesy top is bubbling and golden brown.

8. Serve with a nice bread like foccacia.

Honestly, I've never made the same pasta bake twice- it always changes based on what I have handy and what I want to add and that is what I suggest you keep in mind while making it.  It isn't a diet friendly dish so if you're watching what you eat consider revising the ingredients.  Quinoa and whole wheat pasta are good alternatives and low-fat cheese in smaller quantity works well.  When I want to make a healthier version I also add in more veggies and less pasta so that I have 50% pasta and 50% vegetables.  Pick a low-sodium, low-calorie marinara for your sauce since the creamier sauces are usually fat and calorie bombs.  If you have to have meat with your pasta bake, a healthier choice (over sausage or prosciutto) would be adding some cooked, diced chicken breast.  Keep a closer eye on the healthier version while it is cooking though because the bake time can be affected.
While a pasta bake is more an Italian-American dish than something direct from the Mediterranean, it sure tastes good and is really popular whenever it gets served around my neck of the woods.  If any part of the directions don't make sense or you have questions, feel free to contact me for clarification.

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