What’s going on in your kitchen lately? After recovering from a nasty bout of kitchen fatigue, mine has been pretty active. Last week, after we got through the food from the weekend’s mini meal prep, I learned to cook these yam noodles for the first time, turned some leftover salmon into a somewhat traditional Japanese breakfast, and riffed on one of my favorite NYT Cooking recipes for a cozy weeknight meal (it may be behind a pay wall if you don’t subscribe, but you can watch me loosely cook through it here).
I’ve also made the “recipe” featured in today’s Fresh Letter twice in the span of a single week.
The scare quotes around recipe here are to remind you that as with most recipes I write, this one is infinitely riff-able and I encourage you to make adjustments to your own taste. The base recipe for this Veggie-Loaded Pasta Bake is yes, just four ingredients, but there are so many easy additions and substitutions to employ to make this your own. I’ll give you a few ideas, but also, please, let your imagination run wild.
I should also clarify that while the ingredients list is yes, six bullet points long…I’m not counting our cooking fat or salt in the four I reference. I think that seems fair, right? Regardless, this recipe is easy, fast, flexible, and extremely tasty. Sold? Sold.
Now, let’s talk about the Veggie-Loaded Pasta Bake that’s so good, it’s on repeat over here at Fresh Erica HQ:
As you know, I’m a huge proponent of working veggies into my meals in creative ways—this recipe is a perfect example. This is not a low carb household, so you won’t find me subbing spaghetti squash or zucchini for pasta in my own cooking. But in this recipe, I’ve incorporated a classic veggie-for-carb-sub, cauliflower rice, with pasta. This ups the nutrient quotient the meal while also scratching the ooey gooey baked pasta itch I’ve had for the past couple weeks (likely due to the Sopranos binge going on in my house right now).
And honestly, I think the cauli rice only adds to my enjoyment of the dish. The trick here is really browning it up in a good amount of fat before adding in your sauce, cheese, and pasta. Doing so means the cauli rice takes on a nice caramelized flavor and a lot of the water cooks off, so it really just seamlessly incorporates itself right into the sauce.
2 Tbsp Butter (or sub olive oil)
16oz. Bag Riced Cauliflower (I prefer to buy the fresh, not frozen kind because it’s better at taking on color and flavor)
Salt to taste
1 Jar Trader Joe’s Arrabiata Pasta Sauce (or any other 24oz jar pasta sauce of choice)
1 & 1/2 cups Shredded Mozzarella, divided
16 oz. Bag Trader Joe’s Penne Rigate (or any similar pasta shape of choice), cooked one minute shy of al-dente according to package instructions
Heat a large skillet or cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and swirl in the pan until fully melted.
Pour the cauliflower rice into the pan and stir in salt to taste (the cauliflower should taste pleasantly salty). Let cook undisturbed for 3-4 minutes, or until the cauliflower rice in direct contact with the pan is starting to brown. Stir, scraping up any browned bits, and repeat 3-4 times, or until all the cauliflower is a rich, caramelized color (This process will take anywhere from 10-20 minutes, but is well-worth it! I like to do some cleanup work while this is happening.)
Pour in the entire contents of your jar of sauce and sprinkle in 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella. Stir until the cheese is melted and well-incorporated and the sauce is heated through.
If your skillet/pan is big enough and is oven safe (I often do this in a 14” cast iron pan), you can pour your cooked pasta directly in and stir to incorporate among the sauce. If not, transfer the pasta and sauce into a baking dish and stir to incorporate. Top with the remaining 1 cup shredded mozzarella.
Bake at 350F until the mozzarella is fully melted and bubbling (between 15 and 20 minutes). Alternatively, you can pop the entire dish away, covered in the fridge, and bake it off once you’re ready to serve. I assembled this dish last night while I did a mini meal prep and plan to pull it out of my fridge and bake it off for dinner tonight! If you do this, just be sure it’s heated through—this make take a full 30 minutes.
Caramelize a minced yellow onion in the butter before you add the cauliflower rice.
Add a few cloves of roughly chopped garlic with the cauliflower rice.
Add a minced or grated zucchini, a handful of frozen peas, some finely chopped broccoli, or some frozen green beans in with the cauli rice to mix things up. The possibilities here are really endless.
Alternative cheese options:
Try stirring a few spoonfuls of ricotta in with the sauce before you pour the pasta in. You can also add a few dollops of it on top in addition to the shredded mozzarella.
Use fresh mozzarella instead of or in addition to the shredded stuff to top the pasta bake.
Amp up the protein:
Drain and rinse a can of white beans and stir them in with the pasta prior to topping with cheese and baking.
Sub the pasta with a lentil or bean-based pasta alternative.
Adjust the spices:
I like to stir a teaspoon or two red pepper flakes in with the cauliflower rice while it’s browning.
Freshly cracked black pepper, dried basil, and dried oregano would also be excellent additional spices to incorporate here.
Try a different sauce:
You know I’m a huge fan of Rao’s marinara sauce. But you could also try this dish with a jarred vodka sauce, or even a store-bought Alfredo, which would be so good with the addition of frozen peas, mentioned above.
If you make this dish, snap a pic and tag me over on Instagram, won’t ya? I love to see how you make recipes like this one your own. And as always keep me posted about what’s going on in your kitchen. You can respond directly to this email, leave a comment for the group to see, or shoot me a DM over on the ‘gram. Okay, that’s about it from me this week. Have a lovely, well-fed week ahead!
With love and a tip of my chef’s hat,