Well, autumn is here with a vengeance. The “highs” this week are in the mid 40s, the lows just hovering above the freezing point, with grey moisture laden clouds looming from up above broken up by intermittent downpours. As the weather gets colder I tend to crave warm foods like soups, stews, baked pastas and pretty much anything that’s been braised and cooked down, meaning that my oven usage seems to have an inverse relationship with the thermometer. This is a super easy baked pasta that you can whip up while doing Heisenberg proofs on butcher paper cuz we all want to be certain of our uncertainty, right? 😉 Sorry, couldn’t help dribbling in a little geek humor. But it really is easy.
This traditionally cheesy favorite has been tweaked with the addition of some veggies that not only add minerals and vitamins but also texture, flavor, and help to make you feel full on less. Yup. More taste with fewer calories. The carrots and zucchini only have 52 calories/cup and 28 calories/cup respectively yet make you feel full as they are high in fiber and water content. The creamy beans pack a lot of protein with very little fat. In terms of flavor, I like how the lightness of the zucchini and carrot coupled with the crushed red pepper in the spicy Italian sausage and tangy tomato sauce help to offset the richness of the cheese and creamy white beans. And since I’m all about texture, the large size of the zucchini chunks allow them to retain some bite instead of turning into mush while the grated carrots bring sweetness and more texture to the party. Sometimes if I want a bit more green I’ll toss in green beans or some kale as well which will further lighten up this hearty pasta. If you’re not a fan of pork, you can substitute ground chicken mixed with Italian sausage seasoning (see below) or go completely vegetarian and use only white beans with your spices. Both options taste delicious but since the hubby requested a little Italian sausage in this incarnation, we’re having pork and as you can see from the minuscule amount, it’s mainly there just for flavor. And for those of you who dread leftovers, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that this tastes better the next day as the flavors and have melded even more and soaked into the pasta and veggies. The hubby’s been known to eat this cold straight out of the refrigerator but that’s another problem for another day [shakes head.].
Psst, is the answer really 42?
1) If you’re making your own Italian sausage with ground pork, chicken, or seasoning the white beans for a vegetarian alternative here’s a recipe for Italian sausage seasoning: (this has been adjusted for 4 oz of meat so just scale up if you’re using more)
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper (double if you really like it spicy)
1/8 tsp dried fennel seeds
1/8 tsp dried thyme
1/8 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried (1/4 tbsp fresh) parsley
1/8 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp (1/2 clove) crushed garlic
2) Don’t add oil to your pasta water cuz while it may help keep your pasta from sticking together, it will also form a greasy film on your pasta keeping that lovely sauce from soaking in. Along the same lines, when draining the pasta, don’t rinse it cuz you’ll rinse off all the sticky starch that lets your yummy sauce stick to the pasta resulting in bland pasta swimming in a savory sauce.
3) While I like tender pasta, boiling and then baking it can give you mushy pasta so I like to boil it 2-3 minutes less than the recommended cooking time on the package so that when it’s baked in the oven with the sauce, it’s closer to al dente than squishy.
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium-sized zucchini or summer squash, striped and in 1 1/2-inch thick pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 oz (1/4 lb) spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
1 small sweet onion, finely diced
1 medium-sized carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 15-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2 c cherry tomatoes or 2-3 ripe large tomatoes, diced
1/2 c low-fat ricotta cheese
1/4 + 1 + 1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1 14.5-oz can white beans, drained and rinsed
12 oz penne or other tubular pasta
2 oz shredded mozzarella
2 oz shredded parmesan
Preheat oven to 375F.
In a large ~3-4 quart pot boil water and 1 tsp salt. Set a timer and cook pasta for 2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time on the package. Scoop out a cup of pasta water before draining and set aside for adjusting the thickness of the sauce below if needed.
While the pasta water is boiling, in a 3-4 quart Dutch oven or oven-safe pot heat oil over med-hi heat till aromatic but not smoking. (I actually use a pot to cook everything and transfer to a casserole dish to bake in the oven cuz it’s prettier at the table and my Dutch oven is sooooo heavy that I don’t trust it on my refrigerator shelf for storing leftovers.) Season zucchini with salt and pepper then brown ~30 seconds per side then remove from pot and set aside.
Brown sausage, season with 1/4 tsp salt, and break up into small clumps ~2 minutes. Add onion and carrot and sauté till tender and onions are translucent ~5-6 minutes. Stir in all tomatoes, remaining 1 tsp salt, thyme, oregano, and white beans, and reduce volume by 1/3 ~15-20 minutes then remove from heat. Mix in pasta, zucchini, ricotta, and remaining cheeses. Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes till sauce is bubbling and cheese is golden brown. Serves 4-6.