Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Spring Vegetable Baked Pasta

Even though I didn’t get wonderful pictures of this light and delicious spring casserole, I better tell you about it before the polite and delicate spring vegetables get shouldered aside by their bolder summer cousins. I had hoped to make it again, and I still hope to make it again, but let’s get something about it out there before next spring!

This is quite a simple baked pasta dish, sort of a lightened macaroni and cheese stuffed with spring vegetables. It has a good balance of vegetables and cheese in a place where too much cheese or one that is too strong might overwhelm the unique and delicate sweetness of the leeks, asparagus and peas. It’s also not so full of vegetables as to make one feel like she’s not getting her fair share of noodles and cheese.

I used Fontina cheese here, which the original recipe suggested, though it was really written for Gruyere. That Gruyere would very likely be quite good, but something milder (and less expensive), such as a basic Swiss or Jarlsberg might be good, too. I also think mixing some Parmesan in with the Fontina would be quite nice. While I love cheddar, however, I think I would save it for purposely heavier, cheesier dishes.

You could also swap in different herbs and vegetables. Thyme would be good, and, when sugar snap peas come along, I’d like to try them in place of the asparagus. And next year, if I’m on the ball a bit better than I have been this year, maybe I’ll add some morel mushrooms, too.

Like any noodle casserole with a cheesy sauce and sautéed vegetables, this veggied up mac and cheese does take a bit of time to prepare, but if you’re excited about spring vegetables, it’s worth the effort. If you’re strapped for time just before your expected meal service, you can assemble the casserole ahead of time and refrigerate it until ready to bake. If you’re skilled at playing dueling burners, you could be sauteeing the vegetables while the pasta is cooking, and then get the sauce going on a third burner. And if you’re interested in bikini season (I’m so not!) this dish is a satisfying way to focus on lighter fare without giving up all the good stuff.

Coming soon: Apricot and Strawberry Tart and an Archive Recipe Revisit

Baked Pasta with Cheese and Spring Vegetables
Adapted from Eating Well, March/April 2016

You can use the same quantity of other spring vegetables in place of those suggested here. You also could use a different cheese if you prefer.

6 ounces rotini pasta
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium leek, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
¾ teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt, divided
½ pound asparagus, cut into ½ -inch pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
¾ cup fresh or frozen peas
2 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 cup shredded Fontina cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
½ cup panko breadcrumbs

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Prepare a 2-quart casserole dish or 8-inch square baking dish by spraying it with cooking spray or greasing it with butter or oil.

2. Cook the rotini in boiling salted water until it is slightly undercooked and still a little firmer than you would like to eat it. Drain the pasta, reserving ½ cup pasta cooking liquid. Set the pasta aside in a large bowl.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Stir in the asparagus and garlic and cook until the asparagus is tender-crisp, about 2-4 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook about 1 minute more. Spoon everything out of the pan and into the bowl with the pasta. Toss together to combine. Set aside.

4. Meanwhile, in a medium-size saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until it begins to brown, whisking constantly, about 2-3 minutes.

5. Slowly pour in the milk and reserved pasta cooking liquid. Whisk the mixture well. Whisk in the dry mustard, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Continue to heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to boil and thickens.

6. Remove from the heat and stir in the Fontina cheese. Pour the sauce over the pasta mixture and stir to coat. Transfer to the prepared casserole dish.

7. In a small bowl, toss the panko with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle evenly over the pasta mixture.

8. Bake uncovered at 375 F for 30-35 minutes, or until bubbly inside and golden brown on top. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 4-6 main-dish servings.

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