Several years ago, The Gastronomer went through a baked pasta phase, during which she came up with a number of fantastic variations on the winning formula of a sturdy pasta baked with a white, cheesy sauce and vegetables. I've recently renewed the tradition with the version presented below, which is currently far and away The Gastronomer's favorite thing to eat for lunch at work. Between the prep work, sautéing, sauce-making, baking, and inevitable scrubbing when the béchamel burns on the bottom of the pan [not sure why this keeps happening to me--seems like the only way to avoid it is to not quite let the milk boil...], the recipe takes a decent amount of work, but it's worth it because it will feed your family for a week (at least, it will if your family only has two people like ours does, and one of the people only eats the dish once...). It strikes a great balance between healthy and rich, with plenty of flavor and spice.
Recipe adapted from "Two Pepper Rigatoni and Cheese" by Cooking Light, accessed via myrecipes.com.
- 16 ounces uncooked whole wheat pasta (rigatoni, penne, or similar)
- 8 ounces bacon (6 strips), sliced into 1/2" pieces
- 1 medium white or brown onion, chopped
- 10-12 ounces fresh spinach
- 8 ounces frozen peas
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 cups 1% milk
- 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded jalapeno jack cheese
- 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 3-4 Thai chilis (or 2 jalapeno peppers), minced
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Sauté bacon over medium-high heat until cooked through and slightly crisp. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to the bowl with the cooked pasta. Discard most of the bacon grease, saving approximately 1 tablespoon in the skillet for sautéing the onion. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until it is tender and tastes mild and sweet. Turn down heat and add spinach in bunches to the pan, stirring until it has cooked down. Stir in frozen peas. Transfer contents of skillet to the bowl with the pasta.
Spoon flour into a saucepan. Gradually add milk, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil; cook 2 minutes or until thickened, stirring constantly [as mentioned above, I've found that the milk/flour mixture always burns on the bottom of the pan during this step, even if I stir constantly with a whisk. This doesn't affect the quality of the sauce, but cleanup is a pain. Turning off the heat just before the milk boils helps, but I'll keep searching for other remedies. Maybe our electric stove just adds heat too fast, or maybe it would be better to add butter like in a standard béchamel ...]. Remove milk from heat and add cheeses, stirring until cheeses melt and mixture is smooth. Stir in chilis and salt. Add cheese mixture to pasta, tossing well to coat. Spoon pasta mixture into a 13 x 9–inch baking dish.
Melt butter in a small bowl. Add Panko breadcrumbs and toss until blended. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture over pasta mixture. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes or until breadcrumb topping is golden brown.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 40 minutes
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Substitutions: There are many possible modifications one could make to this recipe. We've tried several different cheese combos (parmesan, fontina, etc.) with great success and used a number of different vegetables as well. Most vegetables should be sautéed until they are tender before baking. Homemade breadcrumbs can be used instead of Panko by following the original Cooking Light recipe.