Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Baked Pasta in Varying Dimensions

This dish is definitely not winning any beauty pageants, but it compensates for its unfortunate looks with flavor.  Baked pasta and vegetables is one of my favorite Sunday night dinners.  It gives me the opportunity to use any lingering vegetables or cheese in my fridge, and the leftovers make me so happy on Mondays, the longest of long days.  Honestly, when I prepare this, I usually eat it for one of the two meals I pack for school (because my Mondays are so long that they require two meals), and I’m generally thrilled to eat it again for dinner when I finally return to my cozy apartment.  This “recipe” is the epitome of flexibility.  Sauté some vegetables with flavors you love, boil some pasta, toss it all together with some type of tomatoey goodness and cheese (perhaps some sort of protein too), and bake the whole thing until it bubbles.  These are the guidelines I abide by, however, I will provide more details on how I created my latest adaptation to give a clearer picture of this incredibly malleable process.
Baked Pasta 

Drizzle of olive oil
½ to 1 pound chicken sausage (I used basil chicken sausage; use anything Mediterranean)
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
8-10 button mushrooms, chopped
Generous sprinkles (at least a ½ teaspoon) of dried oregano, dried basil, hot pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
Third to a half-pound mini penne (any short cut pasta will do)
2 to 2 ½ cups of jarred marinara sauce
3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
½-¾  cup crumbled feta cheese
½ cup seasoned breadcrumbs

     Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Over medium-high heat, sauté the chicken sausage in olive oil (squeeze it out of its casing right into the pan).  Break it up with a spoon (this takes a bit of effort), and allow it to brown and cook through.  Remove cooked chicken sausage from the pan and set aside (the more you buy, the more you can snack on while everything else cooks).

     In the remaining oil/delish chicken sausage drippings, sauté the onion and bell pepper.  After a few minutes, add the dried herbs and seasonings.  Also, put a pot of water on for the pasta.  Continue to sauté the onion and red pepper until tender, about 8 minutes.  Add mushrooms, zucchini, and garlic; sauté for a few minutes (they will finish cooking in the oven).

     Add pasta to boiling water.  Cook until just shy of al dente (a minute or two before the full cooking time).  Toss pasta, vegetables, marinara, cheese, sausage, and parsley together.  Adjust seasoning if necessary, and then pour into a 9x13-inch baking dish.  Add breadcrumbs (and maybe some parmesan and extra parsley) on top, and bake for about 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbling.  

Comments:  The chicken sausage is optional.  I would have added that into the recipe, but the truth is, everything in this recipe is optional.  It works well as a vegetarian meal, and I’m sure chunks of chicken breast would also be nice.  I usually add a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, rather than marinara.  However, the point of this is to use what I have, and my pantry is currently bursting with jars of marinara due to an irresistible sale.  Regarding cheese and vegetables, the options are limitless.  Cauliflower is great; broccoli, spinach, peas, eggplant… it all works.  A can of chickpeas or small white beans might be a pleasant accompaniment, especially for added substance to a vegetarian version.  For me, the following ingredients are mandatory: onion, garlic, abundant seasoning, pasta, tomatoes, and cheese.  The rest depends on my mood, and what I have. 

A plate of steaming, cheesy baked pasta is incredibly comforting on a Sunday night.  However, something else surpasses it:  opening my refrigerator after a grueling day to see a casserole dish, brimming with leftovers.  After a minute and a half in the microwave and a sip of icy vodka, the drama of the day melts away before you even take the first bite.

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