Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cook One, Freeze One: Italian Pasta Bake

It's the beginning of the summer in Atlanta and already warming up.  Leave it to my kids to request pasta for dinner this evening rather than something from the grill.  I chose to make my Italian Pasta Bake, which is similar to my lasagna, and just as much a 'fan favorite' -- How can you go wrong with pasta, sauce and cheese?  However, since we are already full-swing into a busy summer, I chose to cook one and freeze one.
Cook One/Freeze One:
I am making a double batch of of my Italian Pasta Bake.  One batch is tonight's dinner, and one batch goes into the freezer for use in a week or two (when I could really use a quick dinner solution).  Some call this investment cooking.  Others call it freezer cooking or make-ahead meals.  Whatever term you use, if you have the freezer space, it just makes sense to cook one and freeze one.  I often prepare double recipes of taco meat or sloppy joes to have on hand.  I do the same whenever I prepare chili and soups. 

A Word on Italian Ingredients:
I grew up with Sicilian grandparents who served hand-crafted dishes that were prepared from scratch.  As a kid, I learned to make my own noodles and bread, dry my own herbs, and can my own vegetables.  Suffice it to say, if my grandparents did not grow it or see it before it was butchered, they were not going to serve it at their table.  Exceptions to the rule were rare, and only included items that were sourced from well-researched vendors.  For example, they ordered table grapes and olive oil from a specific farm in CA; Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano from specific local vendors, and cannoli and Casata cakes, if they did not make it homemade, from one, specific bakery.

The world is much 'smaller' now and grocery stores stock really great ingredients.  I do occasionally make homemade sauce, dough, etc.  And, I grow my own herbs.  However, most of the time, I am perfectly fine with serving my family boxed pasta, jarred sauce, and frozen tortellini.  Below is my recipe for the Italian Pasta Bake.  Keep reading to see how I made it:
Italian Pasta Bake


  • 2 pounds of pasta
  • 2 14-oz jars Pasta sauce
  • 2 pounds ground meat.
  • 2 cups Shredded mozzarella (or any Italian cheese combination)
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese - or Parmesan/Romano blend
  • 2 small cans of Mushrooms
  • Italian-flavored Croutons (optional)
  • Italian Seasoning Mix (basil, oregano, garlic, parsley) to taste
  • Sea Salt or Kosher Salt 
  • Ground Black Pepper
Note:  Of course you should substitute fresh ingredients when possible.

General How To:

  • Boil pasta in large pot of boiling, salted water according to package directions.  Drain, and return to the pot.

Drain and rinse pasta to remove excess starch.
  • Season and brown the ground meat.
    Note:  I used ground venison (a friend of ours shared his hunting bounty).  I had it on hand and it works great in this dish-it's so lean.  Traditionally, I would use a combination of lean ground pork and ground beef.
    Note:  I use Sun of Italy Italian Spice Mix in just about everything I cook - it seems to be the closest to my grandparent's spice blend.  A good mix of sweet basil, oregano, parsley, garlic works well too.
Season the meat as it cooks to infuse flavor.
  • Drain excess fat from ground meat and add the meat to the pasta pot.
    Note:  Excess Cooking grease is horrible for pipes, drains and septic systems.  Keep an old glass jar or coffee tin under the sink in which to store the grease.  When the container is full, toss it in the household garbage. 
Keep a jar under the sink for excess cooking grease/fat. 
Add the meat to the pasta.
  • Add the mushrooms, 1 cup of mozzarella, 1/2 cup Parmesan, and 1 1/2 jar sauce to the pot.  Mix to combine.
    Note:  Once mixed, add more sauce to taste.  Some like it saucier than others.
  • Prepare two 9" x 13" baking dishes:  Line one with aluminum foil, leave one as is.   Divide the mixture evenly between the two dishes.
Line one pan with foil - you will freeze this half of the mixture.
One for later, one for now.
Cook One - For tonight's dinner:
  • Place about 1/2 - 1 cup Italian croutons in a plastic bag and crush.
    Note:  I used one of the pasta jars to crush up the croutons.
Croutons - not just for salads
  • Sprinkle the pasta that you will serve today with more shredded cheese and the crushed croutons to make a crunchy topping.
Topped with cheese, croutons, and a bit more parsley.
  • Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes or until the cheese looks melted.

  • Serve with a healthy salad or green vegetable and enjoy!
Freeze One - For Later On:

We said we'd freeze one.  Here's how I processed the second pan of pasta bake for later:
  • Cover the pasta completely with foil and store in the refrigerator overnight.
    Note:  This cools/sets the pasta so you can work with it the next day.
Cooling the second pan of pasta in our basement refrigerator.
  • The next day, remove the pasta (in the foil liner) and wrap it in plastic wrap. 
The foil liner keeps the baking dish clean.
  • Wrap the pasta 'package' well in another layer of foil.
  • Note:  You can also use a zipper freezer bag.  I will be using the pasta in a week or two, so foil and plastic wrap is sufficient. 
Ready for the freezer
  • Place the pasta in the freezer for later use.
I will freeze this for no more than two weeks.
When you are ready to use the frozen pasta, simply remove it from the freezer and thaw it in the refrigerator for about 24 hours.  Then, unwrap the top wrapping and place back in the baking dish (in the original foil liner).  Add toppings, bake and serve!
As I mentioned, this dinner is a 'fan favorite.'  The kids did, indeed, ask for seconds.  And, they want to have left-overs tonight...that's a winner in my book!  

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