12 January 2012

Vegetarian Baked Pasta Casserole, Better Than Almost Any Lasagna

To understand why I started making this dish, you need to know that I am 36 weeks pregnant. I am hungry all the time. ALL THE TIME. And thirsty. Luckily, it's Clementine season, and that tends to solve both problems at once. But before we bought the Clementines, Julia told me the same story over and over about how when she was in her last weeks of pregnancy, she got the nesting instinct and just started obsessively making lasagna over and over again and freezing it. Finally, after the baby was born, she and Doug enjoyed this fabulous lasagna for weeks.

I have heard this story at least 10 times, no joke. That lasagna must have some sort of symbolic meaning deep in Julia's pscyhe, like it's the Lasagna of Life or something.

Anyway, I entered the latest phase of my pregnancy, and Julia was about to visit, and inevitably my brain turned to lasagna. As in, "Going to have a baby soon, better make some lasagna." That is called conditioning, folks. But there were some problems. First, I do not enjoy meat, so I always make vegetarian lasagna. Second, over the last decade I have learned that actually I do not like making lasagna; it is a complete pain. I like eating lasagna, I like buying delicious, well-made vegetarian lasagna (so rare!), but the whole cooking process just annoys me no end.

So I invented this dish as a lasagna substitute. It is much easier to eat than lasagna because you don't have to worry about layers slip-sliding all over the place when you cut into it. It is also easier to put together, and if you like tasty vegetables as much as I do, it is much easier to fill with different vegetables than lasagna is. In short, I think this dish I invented is BETTER THAN LASAGNA. Except for the Lasagna of Life that Julia made—obviously that tasted better than any other food in the entire world. Too bad it is gone forever.

Baked Pasta Casserole

Serves 8-12

1 lb. whole wheat bow ties (farfalle)
1 15 ounce can tomato sauce
dried basil and dried oregano
1 onion, chopped
handful of frozen pearl onions (optional)
2 handfuls frozen chopped peppers (optional—or cut up peppers yourself)
several handful fresh spinach leaves
1 Cup or more grated cheddar cheese
1 Cup or more freshly grated Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano

Broccoli Version: 3 to 6 stalks broccoli, chopped really small and boiled or steamed until tender
Mushroom Version: 48-ounces any mushrooms, washed, stemmed, chopped into small chunks, and sautéed until tender

1. Cook pasta in a large pot until tender. Drain and return to pot.
2. Meanwhile, in a large fry pan sauté chopped onion five minutes.
3. Add tomato sauce, healthy shakes of spices, pearl onions, and peppers. Cook a few more minutes. You can add sautéed mushrooms to the sauce at any point if there’s room in the fry pan. Turn off heat.
4. Preheat oven to 375º F.
5. Mix sauce, cooked broccoli or mushrooms, and several handfuls spinach into the cooked pasta. Stir to evenly distribute ingredients.
6. Take out a 9x13 glass Pyrex pan. Pour 1 half of the pasta mixture into the pan in an even layer.
7. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese lightly and evenly on top.
8. Pour the 2nd half of the pasta mixture on top of the cheddar cheese layer.
9. Evenly sprinkle the Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano over the top.
10. Bake in the oven 10-15 minutes or until the cheese on top has melted, bubbled, or browned.
11. Either serve at once or let cool on stove, cover with aluminum foil, and stick in the refrigerator. Lasts about a week in the refrigerator. Obviously, if you're PREGNANT, you should freeze it.

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