Baked Out of My Mind
We are great lovers of baked pasta at my house. Lasagnas of all tomatoey, pestoey, creamy stripes, macaroni and cheese plain or fancied up with caramelized onions and roasted butternut squash—we love it all.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) most kinds of baked pasta are total cheese bombs. And while we both adore cheese, we can’t eat meals containing loads of it on too regular a basis. At least not unless we want to buy new pants. We simply do not have the kinds of metabolisms that allow us to shovel in pounds of cheese with no obvious repercussions. (Ultimately, I think that gives us an edge on the obstinately skinny people who eat junk with wild abandon. Hey, what’s that whooshing sound? It must be my blood running unimpeded through my clean, flexible arteries!)
Not one to let my desire for tasty pasta be squelched by the need to eat healthy, we’ve had a less decadent, more average-weeknight-style baked pasta on the rotation for a while. When I saw a link to this recipe on a message board I frequent, I decided to give it a try, just to change things up a little, and man-oh-man, it’s so delicious, it’s bumped our other healthy baked pasta right off the list. Garlicky and spicy with little treasures of melted fresh mozzarella strewn throughout.
I made several changes to the recipe as written, including swapping out the rather insipid frozen spinach for its more flavorful and nutritious cousin, kale. I also added lentils for protein and fiber, to make this a one dish meal, no sides needed.
Now, this is a one dish meal. It is not a one pot meal. If you don’t have cooked lentils on hand, it is a several pot meal. However, only one pot gets particularly dirty, the active cooking involved is fairly minimal, and the reward for your dish-doing efforts will be enough food to serve a crowd, or your family leftovers for days.
Like a good baked pasta should, this dish will freeze well. It can also easily be made gluten-free by using gluten-free pasta (I used brown rice pasta) and breadcrumbs.
Spicy Baked Ziti
1 lb. whole-grain ziti (or other short, chunky pasta)
¾ cup brown/green dried lentils (or about 2 cups cooked)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
12 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper*
2 large bunches kale (preferable dinosaur kale), chopped and washed with water still clinging to the leaves
1 28 oz. can tomatoes in juice, diced (I like to buy whole and dice my own—your choice)
12 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup whole grain bread crumbs
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
½ cup grated Romano cheese
1. Pre-heat your oven to 375. Grease a 9×12 baking dish with olive oil.
2. Cook the ziti in plenty of salted boiling water until al dente. Set aside.
3. Cook the lentils in 1.5 cups of water with a pinch of salt. Set aside.
4. In a large saucepan or skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and toss to coat in oil. Turn heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms give up their liquid. Let the liquid evaporate and the mushrooms brown a bit. This will take about ten minutes.
5. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Add garlic and crushed red pepper, stirring to mix. Sauté for a few minutes, until the garlic is golden and fragrant but not browned.
6. Add chopped kale to the pan and mix with the mushroom, garlic, and red pepper. If you can’t fit all the kale into the pan at once, wait until it’s cooked down a bit and then add the rest. Stir frequently until the kale is wilted but still bright green and fairly firm—it will cook further in the oven. Turn off heat.
7. Add diced tomatoes, cooked ziti, and mozzarella cubes to the pan. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly to combine and spread into prepared baking dish.
8. Mix bread crumbs, grated cheese, and remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Spread evenly over the top of the pasta mixture. Bake until the top is browned and crispy, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
*A tablespoon will make the dish fairly spicy. Feel free to add more or less, to your taste.