Even though I tell myself that meat, chicken fish or seafood doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be part of every dinner, I admit to serving very few completely vegetarian meals as a regular course of action. My husband definitely grew up in a house where meat or chicken graced the table nightly, and he tends to look askance at any dinner I point out is vegetarian. I don’t want to imply that he is not a highly evolved person. He is. He just likes meat.
But it’s best to avoid the actual word vegetarian, even when the dish being served is in fact meatless. Actually as I write this I realize the word meatless would scare him off even more than the word vegetarian. And vegan….well….now I’m perversely curious to try all of these words out this week.
But the words “pasta casserole” evoke a happy feeling in him, as well the boys, and pretty much most people. And happiness is my goal in life, especially at the dinner table. I live to serve. I’m going to stop writing now.
Except to say that this Spinach Goat Cheese Baked Pasta with Sunflower Seeds is a very contemporary vegetarian casserole. The sunflower seeds will toast on top of the casserole so no need to toast them ahead of time. You can also use hulled pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, or pine nuts; anything else you can think of to get a nice crunch going on the top, to contrast with the creamy inside. Try whole wheat pasta if you like (my god, wouldn’t that just put Gary over the edge).
And you can of course use any pasta shape you like, but for this dish I somehow like to keep the pasta size on the smaller side, especially if this is going to be served as a side dish. What I also really like about this dish is that if you serve it as part of a spread it can be a side dish for anyone who is eating something else, something meaty perhaps, and also be a main dish for those who are sticking to the vegetarian offerings.
Spinach Goat Cheese Baked Pasta with Sunflower Seeds
- 2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for oiling the pan if needed
- Coarse or kosher salt to taste
- 1 pound small or medium pasta shells
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 large yellow onion chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 4 cups roughly chopped fresh baby spinach a 9-ounce bag gives you the right amount
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 2 cups crumbled goat cheese
- 1 cup chopped roasted red pepper optional
- ⅔ cup sunflower seeds
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly oil shallow a 2-quart casserole, or spray with cooking spray.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it generously. Cook the pasta according to package directions, stopping just before the pasta is fully tender. Right before draining the pasta, scoop out 2 cups of the cooking water and reserve, then drain the pasta and return the shells to the pot.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and sauté the onion for 5 minutes until lightly browned. Stir in the garlic and sauté for one more minute, until you can smell the garlic. Stir in the spinach, stirring just until it is slightly wilted, about 2 minutes. Add the lemon zest, goat cheese, pureed roasted pepper (if using) and the reserved 2 cups cooking water, then stir to combine well, until the goat cheese is dissolved into a creamy sauce. Turn the mixture into the pot with the cooked pasta and stir to blend well.
- Turn the mixture into the prepared casserole pan and sprinkle the top with the sunflower seeds. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until it is bubbly around the edges and the top and the sunflower seeds have turned golden brown. Serve hot.
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