10 December 2012

Hearty & Healthy Italian Pasta Bake

There are times when you just need a good Italian meal.  We're not talking about simple spaghetti here.  I mean some serious Italian indulgence.  Piles of tender pasta and far too much marinara than is typically correct, capped with melted mozzarella just barely toasted to bubbly perfection.  Oh, the humanity.  I find an interesting juxtaposition between this dish and the weather - as the temperature decreases, my need for this dinner increases.  Drastically.  And specifically.  So give spaghetti a rest and try this healthy, hearty pasta bake.

I absolutely love Italian food, but I do not order it frequently when I go out.  Mainly because I hate the post-Italian gut bomb.  You know, that feeling that you need to slouch and change into sweatpants that lingers for the rest of the evening.  This is why I make Italian at home.  I can cut about about 3/4 of the oil, control the ratio of pasta to meat and veggies, and use better-for-you ingredients that don't make my digestive track feel like it's just been derailed.  

(Yes, we eat shells.  We're fun/classy/immature like that.  Take your pick.)

Please see the lovely close-up of the filling bowl above.  This is not a mound of spaghetti with a drizzle of tomato sauce.  So let's break it down a bit.  First off, we have our pasta.  A short, whole wheat noodle is excellent here*.  Full of fiber, it lowers your cholesterol and improves digestion.  Next, we have the classic marinara.  I love Classico, particularly the Garlic & Basil variety.  It's one of the lowest sodium sauces on the market, has big chunks of tomatoes and tastes almost as good as homemade.  To make the hubby happy, we have garlicky ground beef.  To make me happy, it's 90% lean.  When you add in all the sauce, not even the burliest of men can tell you went with a healthier option.  And finally, to complete the filling (as well as the dietary pyramid) are our vegetables.  Simple grilled mushrooms and kale, chopped and tossed with even more garlic for a truly Italian flavor sensation.  Yum.

And of course, fresh mozzarella on top.  Oh yes.  Let it be cold!

We are obsessed with our little 4 inch Le Creuset baking dishes, and therefore made one for each of us. This turned out to be a colossal overestimation of our eating abilities, because we were both beyond thoroughly stuffed and unable to completely finish.  But this is a perfect dinner for 3-4 in a 8x8 baking dish or even doubled in a 16x9 pan.  Feed a few or a family (or in our case, a family of few).  But be sure to consider a pasta bake on your next dreary day.  

Hearty & Healthy Italian Bake (serves 3-4, or two overzealous foodies)
  • 8-10 oz 90% lean ground beef
  • 1 tbs garlic
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 4 oz short whole wheat pasta 
  • 1 cup mushrooms, roughly chopped (ours were about the same size as our shells)
  • 1 1/2 c kale, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 tsp garlic (yes, more garlic)
  • 2 c marinara 
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp chili flakes
  • 4 oz mozzarella, thinly sliced or grated
Place a large pot of salted water over high heat and pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees.  When in boils, add the pasta and cook according to directions.  While you are waiting for your water to boil, prepare the ground beef.

Plate a large skillet over medium-high heat.  In a small bowl, combine the ground beef, 1 tablespoon of garlic, salt and pepper.  Mix together well with your hands, then transfer into the pre-heated skillet.  Cook for 8-10 minutes, breaking and turning occasionally with a spatula, until the meat is no longer pink.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Place the skillet back on the heat and add the mushrooms.  Cook for until they are lightly golden and soft, about 4 minutes, then add 1-2 teaspoons of garlic and cook for another minute.  Add the kale to the mushrooms and cook for another few minutes, until the kale is bright green and slightly reduced in volume.  Transfer to the large mixing bowl containing the beef.  

When your pasta is done cooking, toss well to drain any excess water before adding to the beef and vegetable mixture.  Add the marinara and chili flakes, then stir together until well combined.  Spray an 8x8 baking dish with non-stick, then transfer the filling into the dish.  Top with mozzarella.  Transfer to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling around the edges and the cheese is just starting to turn golden on top.  Remove and let cool for 5 minutes.  Serve with grated Parmesan, fresh basil and additional chili flakes.  

*This dish is also excellent with gluten-free pasta!

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