Make-Ahead Baked Pasta Delights

by Debra Daniels-Zeller

Pasta was originally thought to have been invented by the Chinese and taken to Italy by Marco Polo in the 13th century, but history indicates that strips of dried pasta were first carried to Italy on ships manned by Arabs before 1000 A.D. That means the Italians were probably savoring lasagna long before Marco Polo was even born! The Italian climate was perfect for growing durum wheat, the variety of wheat that is ground into semolina flour to make pasta.

Although pasta is often considered the original convenience food, in ancient times people kneaded pasta dough with their hands and feet in an all-day process. This dough was cut into ribbons and dried. With these wide pasta ribbons, the first baked pasta dish, a version of lasagna, was created. Centuries ago, this baked pasta was reserved for Rome’s privileged. Early lasagna contained such ingredients as raisins and spices brought by Arab invaders. In the 17th century, cooked pasta was sold seasoned with lard and cheese by vendors on the streets of Naples, where ordinary people ate it with their fingers. In 1862, tomato sauce transformed pasta, creating dishes with a more contemporary look and taste.

Today, pasta has evolved into just about any shape you can imagine. Though there is a name for every pasta variety, only a small number of these traditional names are used outside of Italy. Long pasta includes spaghetti, linguini, and angel hair. Some ribbons are tagliatelle, fettuccine, and tagliolini. Tubes include penne, garganeli, and cavatappi. There are special shapes, such as farfalle (bow ties), fusilli (spirals), conchiglie (shells), gemelli (twists), and radiatori (short, chunky pasta with ridges, resembling a radiator). Pasta for soups might include alfabetini (alphabets), tubetti (small tubes), farfarellini (small bow ties), or orzo (rice-shaped). Stuffed pastas, such as ravioli, tortellini, cannelloni, manicotti, and lasagna, are favored by many pasta lovers.

A versatile food, pasta is enhanced by sauce, herbs and spices, oils, and vegetables. Baked dishes use dried, precooked pasta, along with a sauce and vegetables to make a complete meal that is ready to eat when you are. When creating these dishes, it is helpful to use a pasta with a shape, such as bow ties, penne, or spirals, instead of flat noodles like linguini since some of the sauce is absorbed. You can put these bake-ahead dishes together, then eat them at your convenience. Lasagna and manicotti noodles are exceptions. With enough sauce, these can be cooked as dry noodles in the baked dish. When you use precooked pasta, it should be al dente, cooked just enough to retain a firm texture.

Cooking Perfect Pasta

For most dishes, pasta should be cooked in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water. The noodles need plenty of room to move around when they cook. If you are on a low-sodium diet, you need only add a teaspoon of salt. If you are serving the pasta with a sauce that contains salt, omit the salt. It is only added to bring out flavor.

Some people believe oil should be added to the water to prevent the noodles from sticking together, but this is a waste of oil. When you add the pasta to the boiling water, the noodles have a tendency to sink to the bottom and stick. Give the noodles a stir, keep the water boiling, and make sure the noodles continue moving around in the water to cook evenly.

The best way to determine when the pasta is done is by sampling the texture, not by throwing it against a wall to see if it sticks, as some insist. Read the package instructions. If the directions say “Cook for 10 minutes,” begin tasting at 7 or 8 minutes. When you are making a baked pasta dish, it is important that the pasta is slightly undercooked. Rinse the pasta to stop the cooking process; otherwise, it will continue to cook after you drain it. This is not necessary when eating pasta immediately, but when you intend to make a dish and serve it later, rinse the pasta so it doesn’t overcook.

Recipe Index

Smoky Penne Baked with Eggplant and Portobello Mushrooms

in Fire-roasted Tomato Sauce

(Serves 6)

You can find Lightlife’s Fakin’ Bacon (smoked tempeh strips) at natural foods stores. Oil brings out the flavor of the tempeh bacon and helps carry it throughout this dish. You can find crushed red peppers in the spice section of most grocery stores, and fire-roasted tomatoes are available at natural foods stores. Because Fakin’ Bacon contains a good amount of salt, there is no need to salt the boiling water used for pasta.

  • 2 cups uncooked penne
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6-8 strips of Lightlife’s Fakin’ Bacon or smoky tempeh strips
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 medium eggplant, cut into bite-sized chunks (approximately 2 cups)
  • 1 portobello mushroom including stem, sliced
  • 1 Tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed dried red peppers
  • One 28-ounce can fire-roasted crushed or puréed tomatoes
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook penne according to package directions. Remove from heat and drain.

Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a non-stick skillet and sauté the Fakin’ Bacon until crisp. Remove from heat and let cool. Heat another skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining oil and onions. Stir and cover, cooking until onions are soft. Mix in eggplant and mushrooms. Cover again and cook until all vegetables are soft. Stir in herbs and peppers. Add the fire-roasted tomatoes and simmer uncovered for approximately 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Crumble tempeh bacon and combine with pasta and sauce. Place in a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish, cover, and bake for 15 minutes, or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for 25 minutes. Sprinkle parsley over the top before serving.

Total calories per serving: 260 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 40 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 267 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Farfalle Bake with Squash, Artichoke Hearts, and Edamame

(Serves 4)

Delicata squash is a cylindrical yellow winter squash with green stripes. Cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and slice into thin rings for this dish. If you can’t find delicata, you can cut an acorn squash into thin slices. Neither squash needs to be peeled. Purchase edamame or green soybeans in the frozen vegetable section of a natural foods store or an Asian market.

  • ½ Tablespoon salt
  • 1-½ cups uncooked farfalle (bow tie) pasta
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • ½-1 Tablespoon chopped pickled hot peppers
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 cups sliced delicata squash
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup vegan cream of corn soup (available in natural foods stores)
  • One 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1 cup edamame, thawed
  • ¼ cup pecan halves

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and pasta. Cook according to package directions and drain.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions. Stir and sauté until onions are soft, approximately 10 minutes. Add basil, peppers, garlic powder, and squash. Cook for a few minutes, then stir in water and soup. Cover and cook until squash is soft. Remove from heat and stir in artichoke hearts and edamame.

Place in an oiled 1-1/2-quart casserole dish. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly toast pecans for 9 minutes. Crush and set aside.

Raise oven to 350 degrees. Bake casserole for 40 minutes or until sauce is bubbling. Sprinkle pecans on the top before serving.

Total calories per serving: 350 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 51 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 695 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Lemon-baked Fusilli with Tempeh, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Beet Greens

(Serves 4)

Fusilli is pasta in a twisted or spiral shape. You can also use farfalle (bow tie) or penne pasta in this dish. Look for sun-dried tomatoes in your grocery store on the aisle with salad dressings and olives. Both agave nectar and Sucanat (a vegan granulated sweetener) can be found in natural foods stores. If you can’t find beet greens, use spinach or Swiss chard.

  • 2 cups uncooked fusilli
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut into thin strips
  • ½ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon (approximately ¼ cup juice and 1 Tablespoon zest)
  • ½ Tablespoon agave nectar or Sucanat
  • ½ teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 cup water
  • 1-½ Tablespoons arrowroot (available in natural foods stores and Asian markets)
  • 2 cups chopped beet greens

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions and drain.

While pasta cooks, heat a skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions. Stir, cover, and sweat the onions for approximately 5 minutes. Add tempeh strips and cook for another 10 minutes. Sprinkle tomatoes over tempeh and stir in.

While tempeh cooks, combine lemon juice and zest, agave nectar, hot sauce, garlic, water, and arrowroot. Mix well, making sure that arrowroot is blended in. Stir liquid into the onion-tempeh mixture and cook until mixture thickens. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Layer half the sauce and half the beet greens into a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish. Pour the fusilli on top. Cover with remaining beet greens and top with lemon sauce mixture. Cover and bake for 15 minutes, or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for 25 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 326 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 39 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: 191 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Orzo with Red Peppers, Mushrooms, and Toasted Pine Nuts

(Serves 4)

You can find French onion soup in 32-ounce cartons at natural foods stores. The soup contains enough sodium that you don’t need to salt the boiling water for pasta. Look for roasted red peppers in jars on the salad dressing aisle in grocery stores.

  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • ⅛ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1-½ cups water
  • 1 cup French onion soup or vegetable broth
  • 1-½ cups orzo (rice-shaped) pasta
  • 1-2 Tablespoons salsa
  • ½ cup chopped parsley or cilantro
  • 1 cup sliced roasted red peppers

If you’d like to toast the pine nuts in the oven, preheat to 325 degrees and toast on a baking sheet for 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned. You can also toast the pine nuts on the stovetop in a medium skillet until lightly browned, approximately 8 minutes.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add oil and mushrooms and sauté until soft. Stir in garlic powder, water, and soup. Bring to a boil. Add orzo and salsa. Continue to stir until pasta is done, approximately 15 minutes. Stir in parsley. Place half of the pasta in a lightly oiled 1-1/2-quart casserole dish. Layer peppers over pasta and top with remaining pasta.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover and bake for 35 minutes, or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for 45 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 329 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 327 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Peanut Curry Pasta Bake

(Serves 4)

Curry paste can be found on the international aisle of the grocery store, or look for it in natural foods stores. You can use red paste instead of green, if you’d like. Make sure neither variety of curry paste contains fish sauce. A hand blender or blender works well to combine the sauce ingredients. Freeze the remaining ginger to use another day. Cook extra pasta so you will have enough left over to make this dish another night. If you can’t find toasted peanuts in your local grocery, simply toast plain ones in a 325-degree oven for 9-12 minutes.

  • ¼ cup peanut butter
  • 1 teaspoon vegan green curry paste
  • 2-3 cloves fresh garlic, pressed, or ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1-½ teaspoons frozen apple juice concentrate
  • 1 teaspoon brown rice vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 ounces cooked spaghetti, cut into 3-inch strands
  • 2 cups frozen, thawed peas and carrots
  • ¼ cup lightly toasted peanuts (optional)

In a blender, combine peanut butter, curry paste, garlic, ginger, apple juice concentrate, rice vinegar, and water. Blend until smooth. Pour half of the mixture into a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish. Mix the spaghetti with peas and carrots and add to the casserole dish. Pour the remaining sauce over the pasta.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover and bake for 25 minutes or until sauce is bubbling, or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for 35 minutes. Sprinkle peanuts over the top when done, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 231 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 159 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Southwestern Black Bean Lasagna

(Serves 6)

Canned beans should always be drained and rinsed to reduce sodium. Chipotle chile powder is available at natural foods and specialty markets. If you can’t find it, use ½-1 teaspoon chopped canned smoked jalapeño chiles in adobo sauce. These chiles are available on the international aisle of most grocery stores. You can freeze the remaining chiles for later use by laying them flat on waxed paper and then placing them in a plastic bag after they are frozen.

  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 2 medium zucchini, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed, or ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ Tablespoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon chipotle chile powder
  • 1 cup frozen, thawed, or canned corn
  • One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Two 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed, divided
  • ½ cup salsa
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 cup grated vegan cheddar or Monterey Jack-type cheese (optional)
  • 6-8 uncooked lasagna noodles
  • Vegan Parmesan cheese (optional)

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and green peppers. Stir and cook for a few minutes. Mix in zucchini, garlic, and chili powders. Stir before blending in corn, tomatoes, and salt. Cook for approximately 10 minutes. While the tomato sauce cooks, mash three-quarters of the black beans with the salsa until smooth. Add the cilantro and blend in.

Ladle one-third of the sauce onto the bottom of a 7" x 9" baking dish. Layer 3 or 4 lasagna noodles over sauce, then spread half the puréed black beans over the noodles. Repeat layers, ending with the sauce. Top with grated cheese and remaining beans.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover and bake for 40 minutes, or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for 50 minutes. Sprinkle vegan Parmesan cheese before serving, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 277 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 51 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 838 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Mushroom, Spinach, And Tofu-stuffed Manicotti

(Serves 6)

Purchase dried mushrooms in natural foods stores stores. Porcinis have a deep, rich flavor. If you can’t find porcinis, use dried shiitakes or chanterelles. If there are no dried mushrooms available, sauté 1/2 pound of button mushrooms in a little oil until soft and use them in this recipe.

  • ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • One 14- to 16-ounce package extra firm tofu
  • ⅓ cup chopped olives
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 Tablespoon white miso
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar or rice syrup
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 cups chopped fresh spinach
  • One 32-ounce jar pasta sauce, divided
  • 12 uncooked manicotti noodles

Place mushrooms in a measuring cup and pour the boiling water over them. Let mushrooms sit for approximately 20 minutes before using. Press tofu between two plates until excess water is squeezed out. Crumble tofu into a large mixing bowl and blend in olives, garlic, miso, agave nectar, lemon juice, and pepper. Stir until mixture is fairly uniform. When mushrooms are soft, drain them, reserving liquid. Chop the mushrooms, blend them into the tofu mixture, and add the spinach.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour half of the pasta sauce into a 9" x 13" baking dish. Firmly pack each manicotti noodle with tofu filling, lay noodles in a pan, and pour remaining pasta sauce over all.

Cover and bake for 35 minutes or until noodles are soft and sauce is bubbling. Or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for approximately 45 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 285 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 43 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 828 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Cashew Rice Spirals With Lime And Cilantro

(Serves 6)

For this dish, prepare the pasta, tofu, and vegetables first. Just before baking, blend in the lime and cilantro dressing so all the lime does not soak into the pasta and make it soggy. Though rice spirals are not pasta in the traditional sense, they are great for those who are allergic to wheat or are gluten-intolerant. They have a good pasta-like texture and taste. Look for these brown rice spirals on the pasta aisle at natural foods stores. You can also substitute these rice spirals in other pasta recipes with great success. If you can’t find rice spirals, use regular wheat-based pasta in this recipe.

    One 12-ounce package rice pasta spirals
    3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
    4 ounces extra firm tofu, cut into small cubes
    One 7- to 8-ounce jar of button or cremini mushrooms, drained
    2 cups lightly steamed pea pods, or one 10-ounce package frozen, thawed, pea pods
    ¼ cup lightly toasted or raw cashews
    2 cloves garlic, pressed
    1 jalapeño, seeds removed and minced
    Juice of 1 lime
    1 Tablespoon frozen apple juice concentrate
    ½ teaspoon salt
    ½ cup chopped cilantro

Cook rice spirals in a pot of salted boiling water according to package directions and rinse with cool water. Toss pasta with 1-1/2 Tablespoons olive oil.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and pour in remaining olive oil. Add tofu cubes and cook until lightly browned. Flip cubes and cook on remaining side for a few minutes, then remove from heat. Combine tofu, pasta, mushrooms, and pea pods in a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish. Reserve until ready to bake.

If using raw cashews, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Toast cashews for 9-10 minutes and set aside.

Set oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together garlic, jalapeños, lime juice, apple juice concentrate, and salt. Add cilantro and stir into pasta mixture. Cover and bake for 35 minutes, or cover, refrigerate, and bake later for 45 minutes. Top with cashews before serving.

Total calories per serving: 348 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 50 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 435 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent Journal contributor and recently authored Local Vegetarian Cooking: Inspired Recipes Celebrating Northwest Farms.