A Cut Above: Baked Pastas

Every month, discover new ideas to enjoy the simple but elegant pleasures of a delicious, easy-to-prepare meal.
Baked Pastas A cut Above

Busy or not, here we come. Every month "A Cut Above" serves up new recipes, cooking tips and ideas for dishes that are elegant in taste and presentation, yet simple enough to prepare and enjoy in a snap.

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When we were kids in the late '60s and early '70s, baked pasta casseroles ruled dinnertime. Most afternoons somewhere in our neighborhood, a mom was making one. And truth be told, we gunned for an invitation to that house.

We still can't imagine anything better for dinner. Whether or not you consider it dinner-party fare, a savory pasta casserole made with whole wheat noodles, fat-free milk and cheese — and lots of herbs and spices &150 is a healthy, comforting weeknight winner.

What's better, these recipes aren't time-consuming; all three can be made ahead. Simply assemble the casserole, then cover with plastic wrap, and store it in the freezer for up to three months. Thaw overnight in the fridge, then bake as directed. And if you haven't frozen it in advance, you can freeze leftovers as individual servings for lunch or dinner in the weeks ahead.

One final tip: when you cook the pasta, don't put any oil in the water. You don't need the fat and it interferes with the pasta's natural stickiness, the better to catch the sauce. And don't salt the water. You'll be better able to control the final salt content of the dish that way, adjusting to your taste.

Other than that, here's to an old-fashioned pasta casserole dinner. Your house may become the most popular on the block.

About Baked Ziti with Turkey Sausage
Here's a fall warmer, a dish that's sure to get everyone to the table the minute it comes out of the oven. Look for mild (sweet) Italian-style turkey sausage at the meat counter of your local market.

Baked Ziti with Turkey Sausage

Makes 8 servings

PointsPlus™ value per serving: 5

Ingredients

  • 3/4 pound mild turkey sausage, casings removed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
  • One 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • One 10-oz package frozen peas, thawed
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 oz dried whole wheat ziti, cooked according to the package's instructions and drained
  • 6 oz fat-free mozzarella cheese, grated*

  • Note* If the cheese is too soft to grate easily, allow it to "harden" in the freezer for 15 minutes, and then proceed.

Instructions

  1. Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to
    350°F.
  2. Crumble the sausage meat into a large saucepan and brown over medium heat, stirring often, about 4 minutes.
  3. Drain off any fat, then add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes.
  4. Stir in the tomatoes, peas, tomato paste, oregano, basil, thyme, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat and cook uncovered 5 minutes, stirring often.
  5. Stir in the pasta and half the grated cheese. Spread evenly into a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Top evenly with the remaining cheese.
  6. Bake until the cheese has melted and the casserole is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Pasta-Free Vegetable Lasagna
Skip the noodles and use thin strips of zucchini to make this flavorful lasagna, a healthy dinner and one that freezes beautifully, too.

Pasta-Free Vegetable Lasagna

Makes 6 servings

PointsPlus™ value per serving: 4

Ingredients

  • 3 large zucchini
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 12 oz cremini or white button mushrooms, chopped
  • 3 cups chopped fresh tomato (about 3 large beefsteak tomatoes)
  • 2 Tbsp minced basil leaves or 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 2 tsp minced oregano leaves or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp grated or ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound fat-free Mozzarella, shredded*

Note* If the cheese is too soft to grate easily, allow it to "harden" in the freezer for 15 minutes, and then proceed.

Instructions

  1. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick strips. Place in a bowl and salt generously, tossing once or twice to coat well. Lay strips on paper towels on your work surface. Set aside 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, spray a large saucepan with nonstick spray and set over medium heat. Add the onion; cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic; cook 20 seconds.
  3. Add the mushrooms; cook, stirring often, until they give off their liquid and it reduces to a glaze, about 7 minutes.
  4. Stir in the tomatoes, basil, oregano, nutmeg and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes start to break down and the sauce thickens, about 25 minutes.
  5. Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.
  6. Blot any moisture off the zucchini strips with paper towels. Use one third of the zucchini strips to line the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan, laying them lengthwise like you would lasagna noodles. Top evenly with one third of the sauce, then one third of the shredded cheese. Place half the remaining zucchini strips on top, as before, then top evenly with half the remaining sauce and half the remaining cheese. Repeat this process one more time: using the remaining zucchini, remaining sauce, and remaining cheese.
  7. Bake, uncovered, until bubbling, about 45 minutes. Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.

About Tuna Noodle Casserole
Don't use canned, grated Parmesan; it's mostly oil and chemical additives. Buy a small block of Parmigiano-Reggiano &150 stamped with its name on the rind &150 instead. This delicious cheese delivers much better flavor for your PointsPlus™ values. Grate it with a microplane or the small holes of a box grater.

Tuna Noodle Casserole

Makes 8 servings

PointsPlus™ value per serving: 5

Ingredients

  • 3 cups fat-free milk
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp dried dill
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • Two 10-oz. bags frozen mixed vegetables, thawed
  • Two 6-oz. can tuna packed in water, drained
  • 8 oz dried whole wheat noodles, cooked according to package instructions and drained
  • 2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about 1/2 cup)

Instructions

  1. Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to
    350°F.
  2. Whisk the milk and flour in a large saucepan over medium heat until simmering and thickened.
  3. Whisk in the mustard, Worcestershire, dill, pepper and salt. Then stir in the vegetables, tuna, noodles and cheese. Pour into a 2-quart round or oblong casserole.
  4. Bake until bubbling and lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes at room temperature before serving.
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