Spaghetti Casserole

It’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to post anything about carb-loading. Except for a couple of races, I’ve not been running long distances over the past few months. Next week, however, I’m running the Tough Mudder with a team from my gym. The race itself isn’t ridiculously long (about 11 miles) but has over 20 obstacles and will almost certainly take us over 3 hours to finish. Tomorrow is our last hard training run so I decided to fix some pasta for dinner tonight.

I’ve wanted to try revamping a friend’s spaghetti casserole recipe for a while now. My goal was to make a healthier version of it – I’m not sure that I fully succeeded in that, but my recipe does use mostly organic ingredients and fewer additives than the original. Instead of jarred spaghetti sauce I made my own (from garlic, onions, organic San Marzano and fire roasted tomatoes, and red wine). I used brown-rice pasta instead of regular spaghetti.  I substituted vegetarian fat-free “Gimme Lean” (sausage style) for the ground beef. I used part-skim ricotta made from only milk, starter and salt (and without the gums and stabilizers found in many brands of ricotta) and steamed fresh local spinach that I bought this morning at a neighborhood farmers’ market.

This is still a rich, creamy casserole and while not low-fat I feel good about all of the ingredients in it. Much of the preparation can be done simultaneously (boiling the pasta and preparing the cheese-sauce while the tomato sauce cooks, for example). It was filling and I have a lot of leftovers – I think I’ll manage to eat or give them away this week, but if there are any left I’ll freeze them to have later.

Cook 16-ounces of pasta according to package directions and rinse well. I like to use organic brown-rice pasta (available at most grocery stores). I like the the texture and the way it holds up much better than whole wheat pasta (and rarely use pasta made with refined grains).

For the sauce, add to a large dutch oven:

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil

Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering, then add to the pan:

  • 4 large cloves garlic (or to taste), roughly chopped

Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly and being careful not to brown for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Then add to pan:

  • 2 medium onions, diced

Continue to cook for about 5 minutes stirring frequently until the onions are starting to get soft and translucent.  Add to the pan:

  • 1 14-ounce package of Gimme Lean (ground sausage style)

Cook, stirring very frequently to keep from sticking and burning to the bottom of the pan.  Press the sausage with the back of your spoon to break it up into small pieces as it cooks. Cook for about 10 minutes or so until the Gimme Lean is broken up and starting to brown.  If it starts to stick you can add some juice from the canned tomatoes before adding them in the next step.  Add to the pan:

  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained (preferably organic San Marzano) – if you can’t find diced San Marzano tomatoes use whole tomatoes and chop them up in the can by running a knife through the can.
  • 1 14-ounce diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained (preferably organic – I like Muir Glen brand, which I can find at most grocery stores).
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine (I used zinfandel since this is what I had open but I would feel free to use any variety I have on hand as long as it’s not too fruity)
  • salt to taste

Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook uncovered (stirring occasionally) while you prepare the the cheese sauce.

Steam until just wilted:

  • 8 ounces fresh spinach (you can find terrific fresh local spinach at the farmers market here in Georgia this time of year. If this isn’t available, I highly suggest using organic spinach, since regular spinach is one of the “Dirty Dozen” in terms of pesticide exposure.)

Drain well and set aside. In the meantime, combine in a large bowl:

  • 16-ounces part-skim ricotta (I like Calabro brand since it contains only milk, starter and salt. Ricotta is one product where extra ingredients and stabilizers can compromise the flavor – if possible look for one without any extra ingredients)
  • 2-cups low-fat cottage cheese.

Blend together using a food processor, immersion blender, or anything else you have available to do the job. Stir in:

  • wilted, steamed spinach (well-drained)
  • 1/2 cup freshly-grated pecorino romano cheese
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste)

Pre-heat the oven to 375-degrees. Layer in a 9×13-inch baking dish:

  • 1/3 tomato sauce
  • 1/2 pasta
  • 1/2 cheese sauce (it’s thick and you’ll have to spread it around)
  • 1/3 tomato sauce
  • remaining pasta
  • remaining cheese sauce
  • remaining tomato sauce

If desired, you can top it with some additional grated pecorino romano (I didn’t). Bake for about 20-25 minutes just until it’s heated through. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for about 10 minutes so it sets up a little bit before serving.

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3 Responses to Spaghetti Casserole

  1. John Quiggin says:

    I’m not a great fan of ricotta – would fetta do instead?

    • susanlaury says:

      I bet Feta would e good with this, but I’d suggest making some other changes to the recipe if you went this route. FIrst, you’d want to use less feta than ricotta (I’d start with 1 cup and see how it tastes). Also, my experience is that feta doesn’t melt particularly well, so I’d be concerned the casserole might be a little dry. I’d either use more tomato sauce (maybe add an extra can of fire-roasted tomatoes), or add a little low-fat sour cream or low-fat cream cheese to the cheese sauce (don’t even bother with the non-fat versions).

      The idea of using feta has me thinking about putting together a Greek-style version of the casserole though – I’ll have to work on that.

      In the meantime, you might like one of the first recipes I blogged – baked shrimp with tomatoes, feta and orzo. It’s pretty simple, also freezes well, and would be good with any pasta you want to use.

  2. Pingback: Spaghetti głodny jestem : Spaghetti Casserole | susanlaury

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