Hey, for once my timing’s right, so I’m submitting this post to Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by From Kirsten’s Kitchen to Yours. If you want more pasta recipes this week, that’s the place to go.
Meanwhile… for the past few weeks at Preston Markets my housemate Connie and I have gone to this one deli to buy cheese, and every week I’ve looked at the huge mounds of fresh ricotta and thought, “I need to make something with this.” This week, finally, I did.
What we have here is a vegetarian pasta bake with ricotta, zucchini, mushrooms, and sundried tomatoes. You can substitute other veg, of course, and we had a few ideas for that which I’ll mention below. I made a baking tray full, which you can see in the pics below, and it came out to about six serves. This is easily adjusted to serve more or less, though, so just use my quantities as a guideline.
A quick note about ricotta: the kind of ricotta widely available in America, that comes in a tub and is kind of spoonable and slightly gritty in texture, won’t work for this recipe. You want the kind that’s firmer and sliceable, and probably displayed in a moulded cake in the deli, like this. In Australia, this is available pretty much everywhere. Elsewhere, you might need to go to a good cheesemonger or a specialist Italian grocery to find it.
Anyway, onward! You will need:
- pasta — penne, spirals, bowties, elbows, anything you like, really — see below re: quantity
- about 500g/1lb fresh ricotta (the firm kind, see note above)
- 1 large brown onion, diced
- a slosh of oil for sauteing, and some to grease the baking pan
- generous pinch of salt
- about 6 sundried or oven-dried tomatoes
- 1-2 medium sized zucchini, grated
- some mushrooms, sliced (we had a couple of cups, sliced, but could have used more)
- pesto – 1/2 to 1 cup, home-made or bought
- grated cheese (parmesan, cheddar, whatever you’ve got) for sprinkling on top
First boil the pasta in salted water. How much pasta? Enough that, when dry, it comes up a little less than halfway in the pan you’re going to bake it in. It’ll double in size after it’s been boiled, and you don’t want it to overflow the pan. This is literally how I measured mine, from the big jar we use, so I don’t know how much it was in weight or cups or anything, and even if I did, telling you wouldn’t help.
Now, while that’s boiling, get the onions sauteing. I like to get them so they’re starting to caramelise, so I’ll let you in on a tip. I do this lots for different dishes when I’m using the onion-and-dried-tomato combo. First, get your onions moving around in a pan with a pinch of salt over a lowish heat. As they get translucent and start to take on a little colour, get your kitchen scissors and start slicing slivers of dried tomato into the pan. Every so often, put a tiny splash of water in (just a couple of tablespoons), and as it boils and evaporates, it’ll take some delicious caramelised brown stuff off the bottom of the pan, and you can mix it around with the onions and help them brown faster. At the same time, the water will soften the tomatoes a bit and help their flavour spread around.
Once the onions are brown, throw in the sliced mushrooms and grated zucchini and give them a bit of a stir around. They don’t really have to be thoroughly cooked, because they’re going to bake in the oven soon, but it’s good to get all the vegies mixed well together. Set this pan aside.
The pasta will probably be done sometime soon. You want it to be al dente, with just a bit of bite to it, as it’ll soak up a little more moisture from the vegies in the oven. Drain it in a colander, but don’t fuss too much about getting every last drop of water off it. Throw it back into the big pot that it boiled in and add the pesto. Stir it around until the pesto is coating all the pasta evenly.
Now toss in the vegie mix, and give that a good stir too. Finally, add the ricotta, cut or crumbled into chunks about 2cm (a bit less than 1″) across, and mix it through. Don’t be too violent at this point — you want there to be delicious lumps of ricotta hidden in the baked dish, so don’t break them up too much.
Finally, up-end all this into the baking dish (which, if you’re better at these things than me, you will have remembered to oil beforehand). Spread it around, then top it with some more cheese (I used a blend of parmesan and aged cheddar) and pop it in the oven at about 180C/350F for 20 minutes or so, til it’s hot right through and the cheese is nicely melted on top.
We’ll be doing this again next week, hopefully with more mushrooms.
I mentioned other vegetable combinations earlier, and here are some we thought would work well:
Maintain the pesto base and the ricotta, but substitute butternut squash and spinach (or similar greens) for the zucchini and mushrooms.
Drop the pesto; instead, toss the pasta in a simple tomato sauce (I’d use passata from a jar), then use eggplant, zucchini, and peppers alongside the ricotta.