Who doesn’t love a crispy cheese-filled baked pasta? Yea, I bet you have that look of yum strewn across your face. A varied distribution of pasta, cheese, and veggies lets this dish be the star. This recipe is flavorful and meatless. More often than not we see baked pasta with some sort of meat filling and while okay, it just complicates the preparation. So skip the meat and go heavy on the spices. Don’t worry, there should be leftovers, depending on how many people are dining with you. This recipe is flexible and you can use any vegetables that you have, so don’t stress about following this to the letter. This recipe serves about 2 to 4 people, depending on portions and hunger.
What to Gather:
- 2 zucchini
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 orange bell pepper
- 4-6 cloves of garlic
- A bit of butter for greasing the baking dish
- 1 cup of shredded Parmesan
- 1/2 cup of Sharp White Cheddar
- 1/2 cup of shredded Mozzarella
- 12 oz (3/4lb) Dry penne pasta
- 1 25oz jar of marinara sauce
- Salt to flavor pasta water
- Olive oil for sautéing
- A bit of butter for creaminess (1/2 tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary
- 1 tablespoon of dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon of black pepper
- 3 whole bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder (adjust based on spice tolerance)
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of Hungarian (smoked) paprika (not sweet paprika)
- Sharp knife
- Cutting board
- Small saucepan
- 8x12 Baking dish
- Large pot
- Colander to drain pasta
- Large bowl for mixing
- Medium to large Sauté pan
- Soup ladle
If you are more comfortable with preparations then check out the Quick Guide. Otherwise, if you would like to read more of a blog style guide, check out the Detailed Guide.
As always before we start cooking we need to wash our vegetables. Give each item a rinse under cold water, removing any stickers, and set aside. I like to place the washed veggies in another bowl or on a towel. If possible, compost any vegetable peelings when discard is mentioned.
You will want to start the sauce first as you need time to allow all the flavors to meld. I recommend starting the pasta while you are making the veggies. Also, if you are shredding cheese, do this before starting the pasta or the veggies. If you are using pre-shredded cheese then you are good to go.
Before anything, preheat the oven to 350F (175C).
- Pour out the jar of sauce into the saucepan and heat over medium-low heat.
- Add the butter and let it melt, stirring gently.
- Add in all the spices and stir to combine.
- Cover with lid slightly cracked for steam to escape.
- Occasionally check, stir and adjust the heat. Don’t let this get too hot, if it is bubbling then it is too hot.
- Remove bay leaves before adding the pasta. Bay leaves are not good to eat.
- Fill the large pot with water, cover, and place over high heat.
- Prepare the veggies as you wait for the water to boil.
- Once boiling, add a generous amount of salt about 2-3 grinds of salt or 2 tablespoons of salt (This is how you flavor your pasta water).
- Pour in pasta and stir to prevent clumping.
- Cook the pasta till al dente (about 2 minutes below the lower end of the recommended time).
- Drain immediately in the colander, shake to remove excess water, and add to the large mixing bowl to cool.
- Peel a bit of the skin off the zucchinis.
- Slice in half lengthwise and slice into bite-size half-moons.
- Set zucchini aside.
- Slice the onion in half and peel.
- Slice and dice the onion into the desired size (generally bite-size pieces). Set aside.
- Smash, peel and roughly dice the garlic, set aside.
- Slice the bell pepper into bite-size chunks, set aside
- Heat the sauté pan over medium heat.
- Do the water splash test to see if the pan is ready.
- Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and let it heat up (about a minute).
- Add the onion and a pinch of salt, sauté until translucent with a slight brown color on the edges.
- Add the zucchinis, bell pepper and another pinch of salt.
- Sauté until the zucchini and bell pepper have some browning.
- Don’t let the onions burn, adjust heat as needed.
- Add the garlic and spoon some of the sauce into the pan.
- This helps infuse the sauce into the veggies.
- Cook for a few more minutes.
- Butter the baking dish and set aside.
- Transfer the veggies to the pasta bowl.
- Spoon out 3/4 of the sauce into the bowl, leaving some for garnish.
- Mix gently to combine.
- Add the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine, should melt into the mix.
- Pour out into the prepared baking dish, do not fill to the top, leaving some space helps airflow during baking.
- It doesn’t have to be perfectly flat either, some pasta peaks are great.
- Top with sharp cheddar.
- Insert a toothpick on either side of the pan.
- Top with foil and place in the oven on the middle rack.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes.
- Once baked, uncover, remove toothpicks, top with some mozzarella and broil on high for 3 minutes or until golden.
- Remove from oven and let rest for a few minutes to settle.
- Slice and serve.
- Top with extra sauce, cheese, or more herbs.
Alright, let’s get cooking!
The first thing we are going to want to do is to prepare the sauce. No, we aren’t making a sauce by hand and no we aren’t just going to use a plain old jar of sauce. We’re going to meet in the middle and spice up a normal jar of sauce. Get out a small saucepan and put it over medium to low heat, pour the jar of sauce out in the pan and add the bit of butter. Let the butter melt before adding in the spices. The butter gives the sauce an extra level of creaminess. Once melted, add all of the spices including the fresh herbs, give it a mix and place the lid on with a slight crack. You will want to occasionally check the sauce, taste it, and adjust the flavors to your preferences. Be careful to not let the sauce boil as it will splatter/evaporate too much. I generally keep my sauce on low heat.
Now that you got your sauce going, grab the large pot and fill it 3/4 of the way up with cold water. Place it on high heat and cover it. You want this to come to a rolling boil. While this is waiting to boil, we will prepare the veggies. When the water comes to a boil you don’t have to add the pasta immediately, you can always turn down the heat a bit to keep it close to boiling then turn it back up. This is a neat little trick to remember.
Peel a bit of the skin off of the zucchinis using long strokes with the peeler. This helps give the zucchini more surface area for sauce and spices to penetrate and flavor the veg. Slice the zucchini in half lengthwise then slice into bite-size half-moons. Place in a prep bowl and set aside.
Slice your onion in half, slice each end off and peel. Discard the skins. Slice and dice your onion into bite-size chunks, you don’t want to make them too small but also not that big. Unless you like large onion chunks then, by all means, make em big. Place in a prep bowl and set aside.
Using the stand-up pepper trick, slice the sides of the bell pepper off then slice into small strips or bite-size chunks. By making them into small strips you change up the texture of the dish and allow the peppers to slip in between the pasta during the baking.
Peel, smash, and roughly dice the garlic. I like to leave them bigger as I like garlic but if you do not like it big then dice it up into smithereens. Place in a prep bowl and set aside.
At this point, you are ready to sauté. Place your sauté pan over medium heat and let it warm up. After a few minutes, do the water splash test to see if it sizzles. If it evaporates on contact then your pan is too hot and you need to let it cool. Sizzling is the golden point. If it sizzles, then add the olive oil and let this warm-up for a moment, if your oil is smoking, then it is too hot and you will burn the veg. If it is smoking, remove from heat then re-warm it.
Assuming that it is not smoking, add the onion and a pinch of salt. Sauté this for a few moments until it is looking translucent with some brown color on the edges. Next, add the zucchini, bell pepper, another pinch of salt and continue sautéing until they have some color. Always feel comfortable adjusting the heat as you don’t want anything to burn. If you need, add a little more oil to prevent sticking.
At this point, if you haven’t started the pasta then let’s start it. Make sure the water is at a rolling boil add a generous amount of salt (about 2 tablespoons worth) then drop in your pasta. Give it a long stir to prevent clumping, you will want to cook this to al dente. I generally cook the pasta for about 10 minutes, but this time will depend based on your elevation and stove capabilities. I recommend you occasionally taste the pasta to determine doneness. Al dente is when the pasta still is a bit chewy and firm. The reason being is that the pasta will continue to cook in the oven. Return to the veggies but make sure to occasionally stir and check for that al dente bite.
Once this bit has browned up, add the garlic and get your soup ladle spoon. It is time to spoon some of that delicious sauce into the veggies. We want to infuse the sauce into the veggies before we cook it all in the oven. Spoon about 1-3 ladles of sauce that you can lightly cover the veggies but not too much that you are drowning them.
Continue to sauté the veggies and sauce together for a bit such that the sauce evaporates and absorbs into the veggies. Once this is done, remove from the heat and check on the pasta. If the pasta is al dente, strain in the colander toss to remove any excess water then toss it into the large mixing bowl.
If your veggies are done go ahead and add them to the large mixing bowl.
Take the other 1/2 tablespoon of butter and grease up that baking dish. You can also use some cooking spray but butter gives it a nice flavor on the bottom and just tastes better. Set aside.
Spoon about 3/4 of the remaining sauce for the pan, you’ll want to save some of the sauce for topping. Also, add the Parmesan cheese and mix everything up with the spatula. Use a scooping motion to prevent breaking up or smashing the pasta. Once mixed, pour or scoop into the prepared dish being careful to not fill the pasta to the rim, also do not pack the pasta in. Let the pasta mix just fall into place with valleys and peaks.
If it looks a little dry, spoon some of the sauce on to the top and spread it out. Anything can always use a little extra sauce. Next, take the sharp white cheddar and top the pasta to desired cheesiness. Then insert a toothpick at either end of the baking dish. This will help prevent the foil from sticking to all that cheese. Take some aluminum foil and cover the dish, crimping the ends to prevent steam from escaping. It doesn’t have to be perfectly sealed, just get it covered.
Bake the pasta on the middle rack for about 35-40 minutes. Then comes the reveal… Take the foil off and switch the oven to high broil. Dress the baked pasta with the mozzarella and broil for about 3 minutes or until golden and bubbly. Remove from the oven and let settle for a moment or two, otherwise, it will just spill everywhere when you go to cut it.
Slice and serve hot. Top with more fresh herbs, cheese, and/or any remaining sauce. Enjoy!
That’s all for now, and remember that Dad Bods Cook!,