This time of year I am especially excited because there is such an abundance of available vegetables that are in season. Vegetables and I have a special relationship. In fact, I have no control around vegetables. When I see a variety of vegetables, I want to use them all. They all look so enticing to me.
This time, I wanted to create a simple pasta casserole, that felt light, vibrant and full of flavorful veggies of all kinds. I also didn’t want the casserole to be heavy and dense. I wasn’t going for Lasagna here.
I got so carried away, I had a hard time fitting the pasta into the baking pan, since I just had to cram in all the lovely vegetables that I had prepped. All in all, this casserole lived up to my expectations – pasta and meat with a bevy of crunchy and vibrant vegetables in every bite, topped with crisp breadcrumbs and all held together with a light sauce.
1 lb penne pasta
2 Tablespoons oil, divided
1 lb lean ground beef
2 onions, 1 onion chopped and 1 onion sliced
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 1/2 cups green beans, cut into 2-3 pieces each
2-3 carrots, thinly julienned
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 medium zucchini, thinly julienned
1 – 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
approximately 5 marinated sweet cherry peppers, minced
2 1/2 -3 cups milk
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely shredded
1/2 Tablespoons butter
3/4 – 1 cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 13×9 inch baking dish.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season liberally with salt. While you’re waiting for the water to boil, prep all your veggies.
You can omit any of the veggies or substitute others, such as bell peppers, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.
Prepare the green beans by cutting the green beans into 2-3 pieces, depending on the size of your green beans. The size of the beans should be small enough to fit on a fork. Blanch the green beans in the boiling water for just 1-2 minutes, scoop them out of the water with a slotted spoon. Set the green beans aside.
Cook the pasta in the same boiling, salted water until al dente, so that it still has some toothsomeness to it. Be careful not to overcook the pasta, since it will still be cooking in the oven. Drain the pasta and toss it with some oil so that the pasta doesn’t stick together.
In a large skillet, heat up 1/2 a Tablespoon of oil and add the chopped onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook the onions for about 5 minutes, until it’s softened.
Add the ground beef. I am using lean ground beef, since I don’t want my casserole to be too greasy. Season with salt and pepper and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the meat is no longer pink and starts to caramelize a bit. Pour in the chicken broth to deglaze the pan, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Instead of ground beef, you can use ground pork, any kind of sausage that you like, ground chicken, or even browned bits of any meat. You can also add some mushrooms here if you’d like.
Spread the meat evenly onto the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle part of the minced parsley over the beef. Top the meat with half of the cooked pasta. Meanwhile, saute the vegetables. In the same skillet, add 1 Tablespoon of oil, and cook the sliced onion, seasoned with salt and pepper. Cook for 3-5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery, season with salt and pepper and cook for another 3-5 minutes, until the carrots are softened. Add the zucchini and the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook for another 2-4 minutes, just until the zucchini and tomatoes release their juices. Make a little room on the bottom of the skillet, add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the blanched green beans and the minced sweet cheery peppers. Spread the vegetables over the layer of pasta in the baking dish and top with the remaining pasta.
In another large bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk, season with about 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, and the Parmesan cheese. Pour it over the casserole. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for about 45 minutes, until the casserole is bubbly.