Baked Pasta, Meat, Cheese and Zucchini Casserole

When I married, back in 1971, I believed  cooking lasagna was time consuming, and it was. As I tried to carefully place the dry, flat noodles in a  big pot  of boiling water; they often broke and cracked, which annoyed me no end. Once cooked, they even slid out of my hands; pieces slithered away like a slimy snake! Afterwards, I needed to sort of “paste”the slippery noodles together  as I awkwardly layered  them between the red meaty sauce and cheeses.   Yes it worked, but it was a long tedious and  messy process.

I stuck with that process for decades because I’m passionate about Italian food, which is why I leave for Tuscany, Italy in  a week, where I will learn more skills and different methods of Italian cooking from talented chefs!

But, in the last dozen years, I’ve discovered creative ways to make this tasty dish or-as-it-is sometimes called now–baked pasta. It’s been a fun adventure to enjoy a luscious Italian meal! I would like to hear what discoveries you’ve invented for your version of lasagna? Do you stick with the old familiar method, or have new methods jumped out at you?

I say away from recipes which discuss so many measurements- half a cup of cheese, then a layer of noodles or pasta, and then one third cup of sauce… then more of something else.. Some of these methods can make you woozy and confused.  With this recipe, I try to keep it simple, but of course, you can substitute ingredients or make adjustments as you like.  That’s the fun part of cooking–perfection is not in the mix!  Cooking should be fun, maybe challenge at times, but  exciting, and naturally tasty!

Also, share with me the meats you use?  Do you stay traditional with the cheeses and meat sauce?  I do mostly, like using mozzarella, Parmesan and Ricotta.  but I love adding vegetables, and  different meats, sometimes I use ground turkey. I don’t make my pasta dish spicy since my family and my husband and prefer less spice. However, additional spice can always be added  at the table with hot sauce, or cayenne pepper, or a dash of Tabasco sauce.  An easy and different way to add spice is to toss in about a half or full cup of mild or strong salsa into the tomato sauce before adding it to the casserole.

In my cookbook, Nourished: A Memoir of Cooking and the Arts, I call my Italian cheesy-meat and pasta dish –Twisted Lasagna, since I change it up and make it simple for the home cook. Check out my version of lasagna, and compare it with yours. Share your ideas and comments with me!

INGREDIENTS                                                                                  Serves 8+

1 lb. pasta

4 Tbsp   olive oil, divided

1 lb. mix of ground pork, beef and or veal – 85% lean

1 large onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 tsp. salt, divided

1 small green pepper, chopped

2 small zucchini, sliced in rounds

1 Tbsp rosemary and or basil, minced

1 Tbsp Italian seasoning

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp pepper

40-45 ounces of  various forms of tomato sauce    example –  8 oz. simple tomato sauce, 20 oz. pasta or marinara sauce, 14.5 oz stewed or diced tomatoes

1/2 lb. mozzarella cheese, grated

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1 egg, lightly beaten

 

PROCESS

1   Cook pasta in a large amount of salted boiling water until al dente, since the casserole will cook more in the oven.  Drain, stir in one tablespoon of olive oil to the pasta so it does not stick together, set aside.

2  Add the remaining olive oil to a large frying pan, and heat on medium-high. Add the meat, break up the pieces, cook until slightly brown, 3-5 minutes, push the meat aside, add the onion, green pepper and zucchini, cook 3-5 minutes while stirring occasionally, bring back the meat, cook everything 3-5 minutes more as the vegetables wilt and the meat looses its pink color. Add the garlic, lower the heat and cook 1  minute. Add all the tomato sauces, rosemary or basil or both, Italian spices, half the salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, if using. Cover and simmer on low 5-7 minutes as the sauce reduces a little and all ingredients meld. Turn off the heat, set aside.

3  In a large bowl stir together the mozzarella, ricotta, and half the Parmesan. Stir in the egg, and the remaining  salt. Preheat the oven to 375.

4  Add two tablespoons of the tomato sauce to the cooked pasta, stir in.

5  Begin an imperfect  layering process of the ingredients.  First, add 5 tablespoons of the sauce in the bottom of a large pan, 3 quart or larger, if possible. Spread around 2-3 cups  of pasta. Randomly dollop spoonfuls of the cheeses. Repeat the process, ending with sauce, but topping with any remaining mozzarella, then topping with the remaining Parmesan.

6 Bake  40 minutes, until the top turns faintly brown. Cool slightly, 10-20 minutes.  Serve with a chilled spinach salad, topped with slivered almonds.

 

TIPS AND TWEAKS:

  •  Choose other vegetables when sauteing the onions and green peppers.  In moderation, add spinach, small bok choy, scallions, celery and/or mushrooms.
  • For non-traditional flavors, change up your melting cheeses, use Fontina, Asiago, Gruyere, cheddar or even cottage cheese!
  • For  lower caloric intake, replace cheeses with lower fat selections.
  • For heightened umami flavor, use one- two teaspoons of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or fish sauce. Add these seasonings when adding the tomato sauces at step 2
  •   A few teaspoons  of a good balsamic vinegar  adds a nice tang when adding it to the tomato sauce at step 2.
  • adjust cheeses too to your liking, maybe more of one, less of the other.
  • For more Italian flare, add half teaspoon each of thyme and basil at step 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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