How To Make a Pasta Casserole Out of Thin Air, Leftovers, and Love

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(Image credit: Kath Nash)

In cooking there are few dishes that lend themselves to what cooks wistfully wish after, which is cooking without a recipe. The romantic cook in us all wishes to cook like a grandma or a trained chef — by sense and feel and grasping after a taste you know you can achieve through instinct alone.

But cooking like that doesn’t come out of thin air. You learn it like jazz, memorizing a pile of old standards to then riff and play and tinker in your own voice until making something old feels so new that it is yours.

Soup and stew are like this; learn a few formulas and you can soup on forever without cracking a book. But there are so many other dishes as well, and pasta casserole is perhaps my favorite of all.

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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Pasta casserole is the ultimate fridge-cleaner — the hoover of the cheese drawer and the sweeper of the vegetable box. It will take anything you can throw at it, and give you back something far more than the sum of its parts.

Starter Recipe: Free-Form Pasta Casserole

So here’s your jazz starter equation.

1. Cook 1 pound pasta. Ideally something small and ridged that will hold onto cheese and other mix-ins.

2. Toss with 1 cup cheese (at least). It doesn’t even need to be the same sort of cheese — grate up a cheese stick, toss in some Parm, add the last bit of good Swiss. More than a cup is fine too!

3. Add leftovers (honestly, almost anything). Here is where you go stone stoup on your pasta. Leftovers that would have been discarded on their own (looking at you, half slice of bacon) or not sufficient for a meal can be chopped and tossed in. Cut anything up to about the same size as your pasta shape.

4. Bake in a 9×13-inch dish for about 40 minutes at 350°F. Spread in the dish and bake until bubbly. Sometimes I drizzle the top with olive oil for a little more crisp and crunch.

The beauty of this dish, then, is that you’re truly using up your fridge. You might even feel as if it does come together from thin air, since on their own all these ingredients feel insubstantial.

What to Put in a Pasta Casserole

Ingredients like what? 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. In they go.

More ideas? Chopped cooked squash, minced onion (no need to cook the onion first, although you can if you want to), herbs (the cilantro that’s about to go bad), cheese, nuts like almonds or pistachios, olives, chopped pickled vegetables, drained canned kidney beans or chickpeas.

And meat too, of course: a last sausage, some crumbled bacon, that last two bites of pot roast or carnitas your partner left (annoyingly!) in the huge pot in the fridge.

If the mixture is really dry you can also stir in a couple of beaten eggs to help hold it together, or add a scoop of yogurt or cottage cheese.

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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

So, for Example …

The casserole pictured above has the following: 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.

And now that I have kids, there are always tiny rubber-banded bags of veggies in the freezer and a few chicken nuggets left over in the fridge. Throwing these together, tasting what they do side by side, is such a fun way to learn to cook and figure out what you like and how tastes work. How else would I have figured out that I love Gouda cheese with kidney beans and sharp raw onions?

And of course, your pasta casserole won’t look like mine, or hers, or his. It’s a product of what you have right now, and it will be a surprise — a good one, probably. Even if it doesn’t taste quite how you imagined you can still say …

Why this? It’s just something I made up. There’s no recipe.

I didn’t need one.

(Updated from post originally published March 10, 2010)

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