More often than not pasta casseroles are deliciously cheesy affairs. The formula goes something like this - pasta, a bit of sauce, a pound of cheese. The cheese is the decadent glue that works to hold the rest of the casserole together. It's what helps to keep things moist. It's what calls me back for that second piece. There are few things I love more than a golden fork-full of oven-browned mozzarella straight off a hot slice of lasagna. But there is only so much I can take, and truth be told, I rarely cook or eat this way any more. It's too heavy, too much. I end up needing a nap...immediately. So, while I still bake the occasional pasta casserole, I'll typically enjoy it as a side dish, and I try to lighten things up as far as the ingredients go. In this case, to keep things moist and creamy I tossed a rustic farro pasta in yogurt that had been beaten with a bit of egg. In went plenty of garlic, toasted almonds, chard, butternut squash, and olives. Then I finished things off with a sprinkling of feta before baking until golden.
I'm sure you can imagine re-interpreting this recipe based on the seasons. I opted for butternut squash in part because I had some leftover from the Adzuki Butternut Soup the other day. I could imagine zucchini with roasted tomatoes sprinkled on top in late summer, or an asparagus and dill version this spring. I highly recommend the toasted nuts because the add a nice amount of crunch. And whatever the season, zest the bottom of your baking dish. It will transform your casserole.
Almost Cheeseless Pasta Casserole Recipe
I used a 100% farro pizzichi pasta here, but whole wheat penne is much more readily available - shoot for something made from whole grain flour, and roughly that size.
zest of one large lemon
8 ounces dried whole wheat pasta (penne or something comparable in size)
1 1/2 cups butternut squash, peeled and sliced into quarter sized pieces
3 handfuls kale, chard, and/or spinach, loosely chopped
2 cups plain Greek yogurt (I use 2% here)
2 egg yolks
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
2/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and torn into pieces
scant 1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
Preheat oven to 400F degrees, with a rack in the middle. Butter or oil an 8x12-inch baking dish, or two smaller gratin dishes. Sprinkle with lemon zest and set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and cook the pasta until al dente. Just 10 seconds before you are done cooking the pasta, stir in the butternut squash and kale - for the quickest possible swim. Quickly (but carefully) drain. Now run cold water over the pasta, squash, and kale (just enough to stop it from cooking). Shake off any extra water and set aside.
While you are waiting for the pasta water to boil, whisk together the yogurt, eggs, garlic, and salt in a large mixing bowl - set aside until the pasta is boiled. Then. when ready, add the pasta-squash-kale mixture to the yogurt mixture and stir in half of the almonds. Scoop everything into the prepared baking dish(es), sprinkle with olives and feta, and bake for 25-30 minutes. Remove from oven and serve sprinkled with a bit of the chopped fresh mint and remaining almonds.
Serves 6 -8 as a side.