Clearing the Pantry? Make a Free-Form Pasta Casserole

Last week Sara Kate showed you her favorite way to use up a lot of odds and ends from the pantry and fridge: Free-form soup. Here's one more way to use up little scraps of cheese, vegetables, herbs, nuts, and even beans that you would like to sweep out of your pantry. Pasta casserole!

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Pasta casserole is one of my favorite ways to use up all sorts of goodies from the fridge and pantry. I often have little jars with a teaspoon of capers or pickled vegetables, bags with scraps of cheese, and small handfuls of spinach left over the in the fridge from other meals, and a hot baked casserole is a great way to use them all up.

My method is simple. I cook a pound of pasta — ideally something small and ridged that will hold on to the cheese and other mix-ins. Then I toss it with chopped vegetables, minced onion (no need to cook the onion first, although you can if you want to), herbs, cheese, leftover nuts, capers, chopped pickled vegetables, drained canned kidney beans or chickpeas, or anything else that takes my fancy. I try to make sure there is at least 1 cup of cheese (preferably more) for a pound of pasta. If the mixture is really dry you can also stir in a couple of beaten eggs to help hold it together.

Then I spread this mix into a lightly greased 13 x 9 or 3-quart casserole dish, and bake it for about 40 minutes in a 350°F oven.

The casserole pictured above has: Fusilli pasta, chopped baby spinach, almond slices, thinly sliced baby potatoes that were blanched quickly in boiling water, and grated scraps of Parmesan and Manchego cheese. I also added some chopped slices of deli baby Swiss. I tossed the mixture with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and a dash of smoked paprika.

Surprisingly, all these different cheeses and flavors went great together! So great in fact that my dinner guests practically licked the dish clean. And it cleaned out some scraps of cheese that had been hanging around my cheese drawer for a long time, as well as almonds from the baking cupboard, spinach that was about to go bad, and a pound of pasta from the pantry. Usually I add some canned beans, too — one of my favorite pasta casseroles involves Gouda cheese, kidney beans, lots of onions, and chili powder.

So, if you are still working on clearing out your fridge and pantry, and are finding a few disparate ingredients to use up, try a pasta casserole!

Related: Recipe Review: Heidi Swanson's Mushroom Casserole

(Originally published March 10, 2010)

(Images: Faith Durand)