I have a little sister. You might of heard of her before around here. How we pined after cookies that were out of our small-child reach. How we dealt calmly with the cockroach incident. I call her little. But it’s becoming a far stretch to do so. You see, she’s ever so slender but really not so little – a graceful gazelle that stands taller than moi, the aardvark. Pure habit I guess. Or a way of convincing myself that because she is little I shall always know best. What a strong inference. Perhaps I just call her ‘little sister’ out of fondness. I mean she’s sexy as all get out, but if I went around talking about my ‘sexy sister’ people would shoot me strange looks and subtly scuttle away sideways, until they could turn around and run, run, run awaaaaaay.
What’s this got to do with food? Apart from differences in poise, figure and career pathway (ballet dancer v I’m really not sure what the hell I’m doing with my life) we both share a strong-as-an-ox passion for this pasta casserole. We’d fight over who got the biggest serving of the extra creamy, extra cheesy top layer. Bicker about who grabbed that last piece out of the fridge for school lunch the next day. Begged Dad to make it any and every day. Or took to the task of making it ourselves. Together.
The original recipe from the Australian Institute of Sport cookbook contains mince, however it’s morphed over the years to mimic our changing dietary habits. Already pretty darn healthy (if it’s AIS approved then it ticks all the right boxes, perhaps if a tad heavier on the carbs) it became that pasta dish. The one you could eat a whopping great bowl of and not feel as though you’d just consumed your entire weeks serving of cheese and carbs. The best kind of nosh to tuck into after grueling netball trainings on a wintery weeknight. Or in the sister’s case, after many an hour at the studio. It’s quite something to watch a lithe dancer chow into a mountain of past-ery goodness. A sight to behold one could say.
The evaporated milk is genius, producing a deliciously decadent cheese sauce. Make a double batch if you feel like tackling life with all guns blazing. The sauce did indeed instigate many a wrestling match over who got to lick the sauce-stirring spoon clean. We don’t fight over kitchen implements so much anymore. It’s been nigh on 18 months since our last catch up. But in a few weeks time we’ll reunite, consume our body-weight in ice-cream and the world will be all the better for it. As for our tummies…
She may not be ‘little’ anymore, she most definitely has more street cred than a certain someone else and she’s babin’ beyond belief. But hey, she’ll always be ‘little sis’ to me. And there’s no doubt that we’ll always find a way to bicker over special recipes, such as this glory of a pasta casserole. Life simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
Lentil and Vegetable Pasta Casserole
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, cut into 0.5cm thick triangles
75g zucchini (approximately 1/3), cut into 1 cm dice
150g field mushrooms (about 2), cut into 1 cm dice
1 ½ cups other vegetables, cut into rough 1cm dice. Capsicum, green beans, sweet potato, pumpkin, broccoli, sweet corn are all great options.
½ tsp dried oregano
500ml jar of good quality tomato pasta sauce
1/3 cup red lentils, rinsed well
400g can kidney beans, drained and rinsed (optional)
200g pasta (penne or small shells work best)
Olive oil for drizzling
1x 440g can evaporated milk (I used Nestle’s ‘light and creamy’)
1 tbsp plus 1tsp cornflour
½ cup finely grated cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 30x20cm (or similar size) ovenproof baking dish.
Set a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the sunflower oil. When shimmering, throw in the onion and cook for 8 minutes or until soft and golden, stirring every so often. Add the carrot, zucchini, mushrooms, 1 ½ cups of other vegetables, oregano, tomato sauce, lentils and kidney beans. Cover and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the vegetables and lentils are tender. Stir very regularly as the lentils are prone to stick to the bottom of the pot and burn!
Meanwhile, bring a separate pot of salted water to the boil. Cook the pasta according to packet instructions until just al dente and drain. Transfer to a large bowl, drizzle with a little olive and stir well to prevent the individual pieces from sticking to each other.
Once the tomato sauce is cooked, pour over the pasta and set aside.
To make the cheese sauce, whisk 80ml of the evaporated milk with the cornflour in a small bowl or jug to make a smooth paste. Pour the rest of the milk into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Once boiling, remove from the heat and gradually add the cornflour paste, whisking constantly. Return to a low heat and stir constantly until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat once again and stir through ½ of the grated cheese.
Pour half of the cheese sauce over the pasta mixture and stir well to combine. Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared baking dish and pour over the remaining cheese sauce. Spread evenly with a plastic spatula. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake for 20 minutes or until light golden brown on top.
Serve with a salad or baked or steamed vegetables. Can be eaten warm or cold.
Will keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.
Source: Significantly adapted from the Australian Institute of Sport ‘Survival of the Fittest’ cookbook.