A few years ago, my husband dubbed me the casserole queen. We had some sort of casserole dish at least twice a week, if not more often. The thing is, he was in the middle of his residency, working extremely long hours, and I never knew when to expect him home for dinner. Casseroles helped me provide healthy (usually), filling dinners that could be prepared in advance and heated whenever needed. All he had to do was call when he was leaving the hospital and a hot meal was waiting when he walked in the door.
Baked pasta dishes top my list of favorite casseroles. They are the ultimate comfort food and come together quickly. I like to incorporate lots of veggies and meats to my baked pastas—the beauty of these humble casseroles is you can add anything you want. In this recipe, my veggies are zucchini and mushrooms, but baby spinach is Gan excellent addition. While this recipe calls for ground beef, ground chicken, turkey, or sausage would make delicious substitutions. If you want to make this a vegetarian dish, just omit the meat. Use whatever marinara sauce you prefer. I often make my own, but if time is short, I am more than happy to use a store-bought sauce. Also, I use whole wheat pasta when I make this casserole, but you can use whatever kind of pasta you want.
This dish can be made in advance (even frozen), and heated when you’re ready to eat. If you have refrigerated it, add five minutes to the cooking time. If you made it, then froze it, thaw the casserole in the refrigerator overnight, then add 5-10 minutes to the cooking time (you may want to check the casserole to ensure the center has been heated through.
Finally, this dish makes great leftovers. If you’re not feeding a crowd, know that you can get a few great meals out of it.
1 lb lean ground beef (90% lean)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 tsp kosher salt, divided
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp dried oregano
3 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil, chopped
16 oz whole grain rotini pasta, cooked to al dente according to package instructions and drained
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, divided
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef to the pan and cook until browned and no longer pink, crumbling the meat with a wooden spoon in the process. Season the beef with 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine the seasonings into the meat.
3. Remove the meat from the pan to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off any remaining fat into a bowl, allow it to cool, and discard in the trash. Do not pour it down the drain unless you want to call a plumber. Wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel and return it to the stove.
4. Add the olive oil to the skillet and allow it to heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion to the pan and sauté it until it’s translucent, about 5 minutes.
5. Add the garlic to the onions and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
6. Add the zucchini to the onion-garlic mixture. Sauté until the zucchini begins to soften, about 5-7 minutes.
7. Add the mushrooms to the skillet and sauté until they soften and begin to release their juices, about 5 minutes.
8. Add the remaining 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper, along with the crushed red pepper flakes and oregano to the vegetable mixture. Stir to incorporate the seasonings into the vegetable mixture.
9. Return the ground beef to the skillet and stir to combine it with the vegetable mixture.
10. Add the marinara sauce to the vegetable-meat mixture. Stir to combine.
11. Add the chopped basil to the mixture and stir to distribute it throughout. Taste the sauce and add seasoning as needed.
12. Add the cooked pasta to the vegetable-meat sauce. Stir to coat the noodles.
13. Spoon half of the pasta mixture evenly into a 9×13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the pasta with 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Spoon the remaining pasta mixture over the cheese layer and spread it evenly to fill the baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the pasta mixture.
14. Cover the baking dish with foil and place it in the oven. Bake the casserole for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for 5 minutes more, until the cheese is bubbling. Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow it to cool on the counter for 5 minutes. Serve immediately.