Vegetable Pasta Bake with roasted butternut squash, kale, crispy sage, and melty mozzarella. This healthier, vegetarian pasta bake is kid-friendly and guaranteed to become a family favorite.
Pasta Bake with Vegetables
This weeknight-friendly pasta bake is pure comfort in a pan. Roasted butternut squash and lacinato kale are baked in a hearty tomato sauce and topped with melty mozzarella. And, perhaps the most surprising ingredient in this dish is cottage cheese! I know it sounds wacky, however cottage cheese turns deliciously creamy when baked. Unlike ricotta, however, which can turn slightly gummy. Plus, it amps up the protein in this meatless dish, which is always a plus.
This pasta bake is kid-friendly and will undoubtedly become a regular in your weeknight rotation. It's incredibly hearty and comforting, yet bursting with nutrients from the slew of veggies. To further amp up the nutrients, use whole grain or chickpea-based penne pasta. I personally love Banza brand of chickpea pasta, which delivers a lofty dose of protein and fiber. Just be sure to cook the pasta ONLY until al dente (more on this later), to ensure it doesn't turn mushy after baking.
What Veggies Can be Added to Pasta?
In short, just about any vegetable can be added to pasta. However, the sturdier ones tend to hold up better, especially for baked pasta. Here are some of my personal favorites:
- Butternut Squash: I love how the sweetness of squash plays with the bright acidity of tomato sauce. Butternut squash is also delicious in any cream or olive oil-based sauce. Roasting amplifies it's flavor by adding rich caramelized notes, so don't skip that step!
- Lacinato Kale: Also known as dinosaur kale, this is one of the softer varieties of the fibrous green. Lacinato kale softens tremendously when cooked, and adds deep earthy flavor. It's a delicious pairing with butternut squash, and adds so much nutrients to pasta. I guarantee it's one of the best ways to get picky eaters to try kale for the first time! However, you can also sub kale for spinach if you're looking for something more mild.
- Mushrooms: Meaty shiitake and cremini mushrooms are two of my favorites to add to pasta. Especially in vegetarian versions, they add great umami flavor and hearty texture. This recipe doesn't call for them, however I highly suggest adding a handful!
- Zucchini: Especially during the summer months, zucchini is a fabulous contender for pasta dishes. It's quick-cooking and very mild in flavor, meaning it can pair well with just about any sauce. I personally love it with pesto!
- Peppers and Onions: These two are fab in Cajun-style pastas, in particular. They are also a great pairing for sausage-based pasta with a drizzle of balsamic.
The options are pretty limitless here, however the first two reigned supreme in this pasta. However, if you're working with allergies or picky eaters, feel free to swap the veggies for whatever you like!
How to Cook Butternut Squash
Roasting butternut squash deepens it's flavor with rich, caramelized goodness. Though to reap the most benefits from butternut, follow these cooking guidelines:
- Always peel BEFORE roasting. Especially when you're cooking cubes of squash, it's easiest to use a vegetable peeler to peel all of the skin off at once.
- Roast at a HIGH temperature to promote caramelization. I say minimum 400°F, however you can go as high as 450°F. Just be sure you're tossing the squash every 10 or 15 minutes to prevent burning.
- Avoid overcrowding the pan, which will promote STEAMING as opposed to browning. The squash should have at least ½-inch of space around each cube for best results.
- Roast in AVOCADO OIL as opposed to olive oil, because it has a much higher smoke point. This helps prevent those heart-healthy fats from denaturing. And as far as seasonings, I keep it simple with just salt and pepper!
Do you Cook Pasta Before Making a Pasta Bake?
In short, yes-- most pasta needs to be par-boiled before baking. This means cooking the pasta ONLY until al dente. Any longer and it runs the risk of turing mushy after baking. A good rule of thumb for doneness is seeing a tiny ring of white inside the pasta noodle when you cut it open. (The old wives tale of throwing pasta against the wall to check for doneness doesn't work here.) I suggest cooking the pasta 2 minutes LESS than what the box instructs for best results.
Can you Freeze Pasta Bake?
This pasta freezes incredibly well, so don't freight if you end up with copious leftovers. However since it is vegetarian, it will last up to 4 days refrigerated, so you may not even need to freeze it. (I believe ANY pasta is better the next day, so leftovers here are a total dream.) Though if you prefer freezing, just follow these simple steps:
- Divide pasta into two 8-inch square freezer-to-oven baking dishes. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, followed by foil to lock in moisture. Or, if you'd rather not tie up your baking pans, line them with plastic wrap FIRST so you can easily pull the pasta bake out, if needed.
- Label and date each pan, and freeze for up to 3 months.
- When ready to reheat, place in the refrigerator overnight to thaw. Once thawed, remove plastic wrap and foil, and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, or until heated through.
- If the pasta seems a bit dry after reheating, stir in about ¼-1/2 cup of vegetable broth to re-hydrate.
If you make this recipe, be sure to snap a pic and tag #dishingouthealth so I can see your beautiful creations. And don’t forget to follow along on Facebook and Pinterest for the latest recipe updates.
More Vegetarian Pasta Recipes:
Vegetable Pasta Bake
- 4 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
- 6 whole garlic cloves in skin
- 2 ½ Tbsp. avocado oil sub extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp. kosher salt divided
- 1 tsp. black pepper divided
- 12 oz. dry penne pasta or pasta of choice
- 1 bunch lacinato kale stemmed and roughly chopped
- 1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes with basil
- ½ cup whole milk cottage cheese I use Good Culture brand
- 1 6-oz. ball fresh mozzarella cheese, torn
- 8 to 10 fresh torn sage leaves
- Optional: freshly grated Parmesan for serving
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Place squash and garlic cloves in a 9x13-inch baking dish; toss with 2 Tbsp. oil, and ½ tsp. each salt and pepper. Bake for 40 minutes, tossing once halfway through. Using the prongs of a fork, firmly press on garlic cloves to push roasted garlic out of skin. Lightly mash with fork.
- Cook pasta in boiling, salted water for 2 minutes LESS than package instructions, until very al dente. During final minute, stir in kale. Drain pasta and kale, and return to pot. Add tomatoes, cottage cheese, butternut squash and garlic, and remaining ½ tsp. each salt and pepper; stir to combine.
- Pour pasta mixture into the baking dish used to roast the squash. Scatter torn mozzarella cheese overtop.
- Rub sage leaves with remaining ½ tablespoon oil and arrange on top of pasta. Bake for 20 minutes, or until mozzarella is fully melted. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan, if desired.