I have been itching to get this recipe up here for a week or so now, but you know how life gets in the way of things sometimes! We have had a huge influx of ‘stuff’ – I am not sure what has happened at times, but none-the-less the days disappear & I am left wondering how it got to be 9.00pm & I am only just sitting down! Not that I am complaining, nothing worse than me alone with my thoughts & too much time on my hands – always dangerous!
Anyhoo … I have been tweaking this recipe for a while now & just wasn’t quite happy with it … until now!
“But it’s a pasta bake,” … I hear you say … “nothing hard or all that special about those!”. Indeed, I agree … you see, my history with pasta bakes is a rocky one, where I shunned them for a lack of taste, mushy texture & too many pre-preparations for a disappointing outcome.
The thing is, my partner J is a big fan of the pasta bake, so I needed to find something we could all tuck in to & enjoy! I do make a mean lasagne, that I love, but I wanted something lighter, less meaty, more fragrant & rich with texture & flavour, not drowning in creamy sauce or saturated with artery clogging amounts of heavy cheeses.
Luckily for me our little home garden has been generous of late, giving us a colourful array of tasty treasures – pumpkins, carrots, tear drop tomatoes, parsley & oregano. Lining them all up I was struck with inspiration & set about finding just the right combination to bring together these wonderful colours & flavours into a warming, hearty autumn feast for the eyes & the taste buds.
After trying a few versions using pre-cooked macaroni or twisty pasta, sautéing the pumpkin before baking, adding small amounts of dried or fresh herbs, more or less stock & tomato paste … you guessed it … still not happy. The pumpkin came out bland & a little crunchy, the pasta was too big & chewy & eclipsed the colour & texture from the vegetables. Hrrumph!! Mind you, J was a happy man, he thought the ‘trial’ ones were great, but no, I wanted more – I just couldn’t figure out what would work.
I was ready to give up on pasta bakes again, when I was searching through my recipe collection for ways to cook eggplant (another garden goody we have growing at the moment) & stumbled across yet another amazing Deb Perelman recipe on Smitten Kitchen. The woman is a genius with food & flavour combinations. I also should also have remembered what the enigmatic Margaret Fulton said, “make the most of your lemons.”
Yep … it turns out what was missing was lemon! Moneygram locations Lemon zest adds the clinching flavour burst that takes this dish from good to ‘fantabulous’!! By using a base of fresh herbs, onion, garlic and lemon zest, this bake zings with freshness in every bite!
The other key for making this dish really work was roasting the pumpkin before adding it to the bake just before it hits the oven. Using a homegrown Kent pumpkin from our garden, I took the time to roast it while dicing & chopping everything else. Roasted pumpkin, has a rich earthy, caramel sweetness that balances out the savoury oregano & sour lemon.
Combined, this recipe comes alive with colour, the aroma of fresh herbs drifts through the house making it feel warm & fresh. The other great thing is that there is no need to pre-cook the Risoni! Given it’s size, it becomes aldente in the oven absorbing the vegetable stock while baking. One less component to worry about & less dishes to wash – bonus!!
By dicing the mozzarella & using small amounts of parmesan & feta you are gently surprised by pockets of stretchy, salty, dairy creaminess without feeling overwhelmed by it. If you think it’s too much, you can always trim the quantities back – but not too much, you will lose the valuable moisture & density that holds the recipe together.
I know I’m banging on about this, but I have to say I am so pleased with the results, I just can’t stop myself! I love it when a recipe comes together so well – makes me feel all warm & fuzzy!
All the vegetables, herbs, Risoni, stock & tomato paste used in this are organic. The cheeses are not – however, I only use quality products like South Cape. Using non-organic products is not a problem for this dish, it is just my preference to use chemical free products where ever I can.
Ok – time to stop the waffle & tell you how it’s done;
Garden Vegetable & Three Cheese Risoni Bake
(Serves 4 – 8 depending on whether served as side or main)
¼ of a pumpkin or so – diced roughly into about 1cm pieces
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large or 2 smallish carrots diced roughly into about ½ cm pieces
1 celery stalk, diced roughly into about ½ cm dice
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
250gm (about half a pack) of organic Risoni – (rice shaped pasta)
2 teaspoons organic tomato paste
1 1/2 cups organic vegetable stock
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh oregano roughly chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons of fresh parsley roughly chopped – (I used Italian because that’s what we have in the garden, but curly leaf will work too.)
zest of 1 lemon – (less if you are not a lemon freak like me!)
100gm firm mozzarella cut into ¼ to ½ cm dice – (or grated if you prefer)
¼ cup fresh extra sharp parmesan, grated
¼ cup feta cheese crumbled
Up to 3 medium-sized tomatoes, diced – (I used little tear drop tomatoes from our garden but use what you prefer, or is in season)
Salt & pepper to season – (not too much salt now as the fetta will add a little salty punch also)
- Preheat your oven to 220 degrees Celsius (non fan-forced).
- Dice pumpkin, transfer to baking tray and coat lightly with about ½ the olive oil.
- Bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven and set aside.
- Dice the carrot & celery.
- Chop the onion and garlic – (I use my stick blender for this – saves me some tears & the kids & J prefer no big chunks of onion).
- Chop oregano and parsley.
- Grate lemon zest.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
- Add the remaining olive oil and heat through.
- Add carrot and celery & sauté for about 3 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium, add onion and garlic & sauté for about 5 more minutes on medium heat.
- Staying on medium heat, add the Risoni and tomato paste and cook for about 2 more minutes.
- Remove pan from heat.
- Add pumpkin, oregano, parsley, mozzarella, parmesan, feta, tomatoes & lemon zest,
- Season with a pinch of sea salt, & a generous amount of black pepper.
- Add vegetable stock and mix well.
- Reduce oven temperature to 200 degrees Celsius (non fan-forced)
- Transfer mixture to large ovenproof baking dish.
- Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.
- Remove foil, add a little more parmesan cheese (if desired), then bake for a further 20 minutes without the foil.
- Remove from oven and allow to stand for about 5 minutes before serving.
You can serve this dish as stand-alone meal – it goes fabulously well with some crusty garlic or herb bread, (& a glass of red), or as a side dish with some grilled fish or chicken and vegetables (& a glass of white).
Tips / Suggestions: Don’t be bound by the ingredients here – if you want to swap & change vegetables, go for it – eggplant, sweet potato, maybe some corn. I have also tried this minus the feta, but with chorizo sausage added – also great.
If you give this a go let me know – I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Baked Orzo with Eggplant & Mozzarella
Cook! Eat! Enjoy!