OpinionNatasha’s Kitchen: Curséd Casseroles

In which Natasha fails to figure out what exactly is a casserole
Natasha SahuFebruary 13, 2020614 min
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Photo by Natasha Sahu

I’ve mentioned many times before how much I hated my mom’s pasta growing up. She most likely won’t see this anyway, so I think I can trash her pasta a little more before a family friend snitches on me.

Growing up, my mom was an amazing cook, but if there was one thing she couldn’t make, it was pasta. On Meatless Monday — something my mom loved to do — she’d send us to school with a box of pasta in a jar of marinara sauce, and by lunchtime it would be cold. When I got to high school and our cafeteria introduced microwaves, I started sneaking some shredded cheese into my box which I could then melt over my cold, sad pasta. There’s not a lot I remember from high school, but Pasta Mondays are my most prominent memory.

When I was around 16 years old, my aunt brought a spaghetti made with soy “chunks,” popularly known as Nutrela (a brand name) in South Asia. In a way, it was ahead of its time as a meat alternative, but so are most ethnic meals. I hadn’t had good pasta in a while, and I went crazy. That night, we all got food poisoning. Suffice to say, my relationship with pasta hasn’t been the best.

My brother is six years younger than I am. As the oldest child, I was definitely the guinea pig. First child. First daughter. First kid to raise in the United States. First kid to go to college. First kid to eat cold, jarred pasta for lunch and pretend to love it. Maybe because I didn’t protest about the pasta, my mom thought I was O.K. with it, and sometimes she would up it to twice a week. My brother was different. He was a picky eater, he hated tomatoes, and he was not a fan of cold, jarred pasta.

I would start cooking whenever my mom wasn’t home. She definitely knew because I wasn’t really being sneaky (and also there was always a mess on the counter). I didn’t grow up with real pasta, and, being scarred from my past(a), I avoided it as much as I could. I started grinding up Nutrela pieces to make a ground meat consistency. We still only had jarred pasta sauce, but I tried my best to improve, and my brother’s seal of approval definitely helped. From then on, I was always on pasta duty.

Unfortunately, it was too late and I was already in college. The few times I was home, I would make a huge batch of this vegetarian pasta, an improved take on my mother’s jarred tomato sauce pasta, which I would then drive half back to Trinity, and keep the other half to help my brother have a better Meatless Monday. When I got my own apartment last semester, I made this pasta at least a few times a month as part of my meal prep, and I have yet to get tired of it.

Last semester, shortly after beginning my food column, Kayla and I spent a whole day discussing casseroles. What is a casserole? Different Google searches told me it was either “something baked in a casserole dish” or “a kind of stew or side dish that is cooked slowly in an oven.” Both definitions too vague for our combined two brain cells to figure out the meaning. We sent texts, screenshots, memes, anything to help us understand what is a casserole, and finally, I decided to make some with pasta I had in my pantry.

I did my research, I had a baking dish, and we got to work. Halfway through stirring our pasta into our sauce, we froze. This wasn’t a casserole, it was just pasta. We called in my roommate, Georgie. If anyone knew what a casserole was, it would be someone from the Midwest. Georgie took one look at our attempt at a casserole.

“That’s not a casserole. That’s a pasta bake,” she said. And then she grabbed the pitcher of water and walked out. It was too late. The pasta had already been layered into the casserole dish. We could only move forward from here. So this isn’t a casserole, and we still don’t know what a casserole is. But this was a pretty good pasta bake. If anyone has any clue what a casserole is, I will invite you over to cook it for me.

Vegetarian Pasta Bake

Ingredients:

1 bag (12 oz) penne pasta

1 jar vodka sauce

Shredded Monterrey Jack cheese

1 block of Parmesan cheese

¼ cup breadcrumbs

1 bag (13.7 oz) Gardein beefless ground

1 medium onion, diced

1 jalapeño, diced (optional)

Garlic cloves (there is no limit), diced

2 tbsp olive oil

Seasoning:

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 tsp basil (or fresh)

1 tsp oregano

Cayenne, to taste

I also used an “Italian herb” grinder stolen

from my roommate

Instructions:

1. Boil pasta to al dente.

2. In a separate pot, heat your oil on medium heat.

3. Fry onions until translucent, add garlic and stir for 2–3 minutes.

4. Add ground meat, jalapeño, a splash of pasta water and half the seasoning. Cook for about five minutes on medium-low heat.

5. Drain pasta and reserve about 1 cup of pasta water.

6. Add the vodka sauce and stir into your ground “meat.”

7. Pour your pasta water into the now empty sauce jar and shake. Pour into your saucepot. Add in the rest of your seasoning and let it come to a boil.

8. Add in your pasta, and stir to coat all of the pasta. Turn off the heat and stir in some of the cheese.

9. Let it cool down a little, and pour half of it into a baking dish (I used a 9×9 casserole dish), add a layer of shredded cheese and the remaining pasta.

10. Top with a mixture of cheese, breadcrumbs, and some of the seasoning.

11. Cover with tin foil and bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees.

12. Remove tinfoil, and broil for 3–5 minutes and serve.

Natasha Sahu

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