Photo credit Alex Harris
Ever have a recipe you love, but that you know has more potential? Not that you are going to stop making it, but you’d love to see what would happen if you gave yourself free reign to make it just that little bit more exciting? That’s what happened when my Spinach Florentine Pasta Bake became a Cheesy Roast Vegetable Pasta Bake. It’s a real family favourite but I knew it had the potential to evolve into yet another wonderful recipe if I just gave it the chance.
I started by turning the whole thing upside down. No, not literally, that would have been messy – but by reversing the layers and adding some wonderful roast vegetables, I’ve created yet another meatless meal everyone loves. The extra veggies make it even more nutritious and filling, and although the original recipe is still very firmly placed in our vegetarian menu rotation, this one will be welcome at our table anytime. It’s also wonderful for midweek entertaining.
Cheesy Roast Vegetable Pasta Bake
Serves 5 to 6
2 to 3 cups vegetables for roasting (I use peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, red onions and/or eggplant (aubergine) – whatever I have to hand)
1 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (I use olive), divided
1 small white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
about 3½ cups plain tomato sauce or passata (sieved tomatoes)
(I use 2 x 400 gram cans of passata)
¼ cup basil pesto
1 teaspoon dried oregano
8 to 9 ounces pasta (I use penne)
8 ounces spinach, washed and drained
¼ cup butter
3 generous tablespoons plain flour
about 2 cups milk
¼ cup grated Parmesan style cheese
salt and pepper
generous pinch of nutmeg, freshly ground if possible
1 cup vegetarian mozzarella cheese (or other easy melting vegetarian cheese – cheddar works well here too)
Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC or 180ºC for a fan oven).
Prepare the vegetables. De-seed and chop peppers in medium chunks, cut zucchini in half moons, eggplant and onion in 1 inch pieces etc. You want everything to be a size that will roast up fairly quickly. Halve the mushrooms if they are large.
Place all the vegetables on a large baking sheet and drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons oil. Toss using clean hands, and place in the oven for 25 to 35 minutes or until beginning to brown on the edges, turning once about half way through the cooking time.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the finely chopped white onion for 5 to 10 minutes, or until it is beginning to become translucent. Grate in the garlic and cook for one to two minutes more. Lower the heat and stir in the tomato sauce or passata, pesto and oregano. Simmer, stirring occasionally.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions. When the pasta is done, drain it and stir in the tomato sauce. When the roast vegetables are done, stir them in too. Spread over the bottom of a 13 x 9 inch baking dish.
Cover with foil and set aside to keep warm.
Lower the heat in the oven to 350ºF (170ºC or 160ºC for a fan oven)
On the stove top, melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to blend. Cook for about two minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually add the milk, a bit at a time, stirring and allowing the sauce to thicken between each addition. After you have added at least a cup of milk, add the grated Parmesan style cheese, and continue adding milk as necessary, stirring after each addition. You want a fairly thick and creamy sauce, but you may not need all the milk. Stir in the nutmeg and add salt and pepper to taste.
Add the raw spinach and stir through. Don’t worry, it will soften and cook in the creamy sauce, just keep stirring. You may need to add the spinach in two additions, depending on the size of your pan.
When the spinach is cooked, remove the aluminum foil from the baking dish and pour the creamy spinach sauce over the roast vegetable pasta layer, spreading to coat evenly.
Sprinkle the grated mozzarella or cheddar cheese over the top.
Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cheese melts and begins to turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand for about ten minutes. (It is molten hot when it comes out of the oven.)
Serve this luscious vegetable cheesy goodness with hot rolls or a fresh green salad. Leftovers can be stored in the fridge and are delicious reheated the next day.