Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baked Pasta Casserole - Remix

Since I had another bag of spinach left from last Friday I have been meaning to try making the Baked Pasta Casserole again, to make it more freeze-able. I have had absolutely no time to do this, but today when I saw that the spinach had kept in its plastic bag for an entire week, we decided it needed to be done. Ken kickstarted the process by washing and chopping the spinach so that we HAD to make it tonight. (We already ate, but we will have this for lunch tomorrow, and if it turns out the way I want it to we will also try to freeze it.)

Ken wasn't here when we made this last time, so he didn't know what it was supposed to look like. For convenience he decided to chop the spinach in the food processor, so it ended up in really little tiny pieces - almost pureed. He chopped up the onion and pressed the garlic; I zested the lemons and shredded the mozzarella. After our pasta almost boiled over, I tossed it very generously with olive oil, since there is no sauce in this recipe.

The major variation that I made was adding ricotta cheese. I used about one 15 oz container. I mixed half of it with half of the shredded mozzarella, rather than layering the mozzarella by itself in the middle of the dish.

Because this is a pretty big variation and I am linking to the original, I am going to actually post my recipe for once!

1lb short pasta (here, I used fusilli)
1 big bag of spinach, washed, and thick stems removed
1 yellow onion
a lot of olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced/pressed
1 cup pine nuts, toasted
zest of 2 lemons
15oz ricotta, split in half
8oz mozzarella, grated

1. Boil the water and cook the pasta for about 1.5 - 2 minutes less than the package directions. When cooked, drain and mix in olive oil to coat.
2. Chop the spinach and onions into very small pieces (separately); spinach can be almost pureed in a food processor to make tiny pieces.
3. Heat olive oil in a large pan and sautee the onions for a few minutes (longer if you would like them to be caramelized).
4. Add the garlic to the pan (you can press it right into the pan if you want, or add it in with the spinach).
5. Add the spinach. Cook for maybe 2 minutes, depending on how big your pieces are and how you like your spinach.
6. Remove the pan from heat and add the pine nuts and 1/2 of the zest. Mix together.
7. Dump the pasta into the pan and mix well.
8. In a 9x12 (or similar size) baking dish, rub olive oil on all sides with a paper towel, then sprinkle the rest of the zest on the bottom of the dish.
9. Mix 1/2 of the ricotta with 1/2 of the mozzarella.
10. Put a thin layer of pasta in the baking dish. Top with spoonfuls of ricotta, using all of the plain ricotta and trying to spread it out (if it's cold enough, you can kind of flatten it with your hands).
11. Add another layer of pasta and top with spoonfuls of the ricotta/mozz mixture (use all the mix).
12. Add a third and final layer of pasta and sprinkle mozzarella on top.
13. Cover with foil and bake at 375 F for about 30 minutes. If you want to brown your mozzarella a little, you can take off the foil in the last few minutes of baking, but it should melt fine without removing the foil.

So - why the ricotta? I want it to freeze. The extra olive oil may help with that too, hopefully, but the ricotta in baked ziti kind of envelops the pasta and keeps it safe in there. I was counting on the ricotta kind of melting around the pasta and doing just that. It didn't really melt that much - I think next time I might have to find a way to thin it out, maybe by beating an egg into it or something.

You will also have two naked lemons when you are done making this dish. Lucky for you, this is a fun problem to have. I like to cut them into wedges and use them in water and iced tea. You could use the juice to keep a fruit salad fresh. Or you can try my Cucumber Feta Salad recipe, or something else that uses lemon juice. The zest is so worth it in this dish - don't skip it just because you will have naked lemons.

If you are pressed for time or just don't like baked pasta dishes, you can stop right at the step where you mix the pasta into the big pan. That would be a good time to sprinkle some mozzarella, or maybe parmesan or something and just serve it that way. It's almost like an un-blended spinach pesto at that point. The pine nuts add a little textural variation. Any twisty kind of pasta will be perfect for letting the spinach pieces get stuck in them.

So how did this variation turn out? Well, I baked it late at night so I couldn't really try a proper slice. I just put it in the fridge. When I woke up in the morning, I realized that there was more stuff in the pan than in the original recipe, but I hadn't added any time to the baking. The ingredients aren't really raw ingredients that need to be cooked, but I had to wait until lunch to see how it really turned out. Lucky for me, it is yummy! I did not have enough time this morning to put any in the freezer to see how it goes, but I will try it later today. I suspect that the middle pieces will freeze okay because of the greater volume of cheese, so first we will eat the end pieces where there is less cheese.

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