Growing up, I LOVED casseroles. They are the ultimate comfort food… and I’m a big fan of comfort foods : )
Tuna helper, Velveeta macaroni and cheese and dishes that cleverly disguised what was inside with a thick layer of orange cheese on top were numero uno on my dinner list. They were familiar, easy and comforting. Regardless of what was REALLY in them, I thought they were amazing and often went for seconds or thirds.
This – my love for casseroles – made for a very, very sad day when I realized that the man I married (Mr. Crumbs) wasn’t a fan of casseroles. Goodbye comfort food.
Seriously? I thought to myself. What normal person doesn’t like casseroles?!
Though a travesty at the time, we (okay, I) got over the he-doesn’t-like-casseroles hump well enough. But not making them kinda put me in a funk for a few years.
It didn’t bother me too much at first, when we lived in Texas and I was super-pregnant and it was a million degrees outside. At the time, I found comfort in big heaping bowls of ice cream that rested perfectly on my uber-big belly (and yes, we have pictures.)
But when our first child was born, my love for ice cream waned and the temperatures turned cold, I wanted the food that was familiar. Food that was hot, home-y and made me feel like the world was right again, even though the single hour of sleep each night was making me kinda looney.
While I wasn’t surrounded by my favorite casseroles back then, I’ve slowly started making them again without the family (notably, Mr. Crumbs) ever really knowing it.
My first piece of evidence, chicken and spinach enchiladas. I’ve made these COUNTLESS times with all sorts of variations… extra spinach, red salsa, corn tortillas, mayonnaise-based dressing… and every time, Mr. No-Casserole-Man has cleaned his plate and gone for seconds.
With another cold season upon us, I’ve perfected another comfort food casserole that garners clean plates and second helpings: Squash Pasta Bake.
Don’t let the boring name fool you. With two seasonal vegetables, a deliciously rich creamy sauce and BACON, this dish is the epitome of comfort, a la real food style.
Before I share the recipe, let me share a few things.
First, I almost didn’t even share this recipe with you. I included it in January’s Frugal Real Food Meal Plan because my family has enjoyed it so much, but it wasn’t until a reader shared her review on Instagram and a couple of others chimed in with this comfort food recipe request. So, you can thank your fellow readers for this one.
Second, don’t let the long list of ingredients or instructions scare you. It’s a multi-tasking meal, so while one thing is going, you’re doing something else. This dish takes about an hour from start to finish, but you could easily make it ahead of time and re-heat for dinner if it’s a busy night.
There is both collards and squash in this dish, which I know are turn-offs for many families. Roasting the squash first makes it really sweet, and if you’re smart and turn your squash like you’re supposed (as opposed to ignoring and letting it burn like I tend to do) then the natural sugars in the vegetable will caramelize and impart an amazing flavor into your meal.
Seriously, if you’ve never had roasted squash before, you must. Today. Remember the reader who said this meal was amazing on Instagram? Her squash-hating husband gave it a 4 out of a 5. Not too shabby for a hater, eh?
Collards are a very sturdy green, and withstand cooking both stove-top and in the oven. You can use kale or chard if you’d like, and not change the recipe at all. Be leery of spinach though. It cooks super fast and sometimes can turn gooey and sloppy in the end. If you green behind the ears (no pun intended) in terms of green vegetables, use spinach and reduce the cook time on the stove to literally 3-5 minutes. Then bake as directed.
You might not think four pieces of bacon can really make a recipe, but let me tell you, bacon really makes this recipe. You only need four slices, but feel free to add more if you have extra to spare. Don’t add less though, because as I said, bacon really makes this recipe.
Finally, the cheese. Because you’re making a thick comfort food like creamy sauce FIRST, and then adding cheese, you really only need a little bit. It sounds strange that 4 oz can cover an entire pan, but trust me, you’ll taste the robust flavor of freshly grated Parmesan with every creamy bite.
- 1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1" pieces
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 lb medium whole wheat pasta (rotini or penne)
- 4 slices of bacon, cut into ½" pieces
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 10 oz collard greens, roughly cut into 1" pieces
- 1 white onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ cup whole wheat flour
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 Tbsp dried rosemary
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp paprika
- ¼ tsp cayenne (optional, but very good - my heat-sensitive child didn't even notice)
- 1 cup half-and-half OR whole milk, if needed
- 4 oz Parmesan, shredded
- Preheat oven to 400F.
- Place squash in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Drizzle olive oil over the squash and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 40 minutes, turning and/or shuffling the squash every 20 minutes or so.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta al dente according to the directions on the package. When done, drain and set aside.
- In a large skillet, cook bacon until cooked through and crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place in a medium bowl. Leave the grease in the pan and reduce the heat to low.
- Add collard greens, onion and garlic to the bacon grease and cook for 30 minutes. Add 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil if additional moisture is needed.
- When the greens are no longer bitter and the onions are nearly translucent, remove them from the pan and add to the bowl with the bacon.
- At this point, the squash should be about done. When it is, add it to the bowl with the greens and bacon. Toss gently with a spoon.
- Reduce oven to 350F.
- To the same pan as the bacon grease, melt butter. Whisk in flour and cook for 3-5 minutes, until bubbles form infrequently and the mixture becomes medium golden brown.
- Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper.
- Cook, stirring very often so not to burn the milk, until the mixture is thick and bubbly (about 8-10) minutes.
- Add rosemary, nutmeg, paprika and cayenne, if using, and stir well. Taste and add additional seasoning if desire.
- With the heat on low, add shredded Parmesan, stirring well until mostly melted, then removing from the heat.
- Butter a 9x12 baking dish.
- Layer the cooked noodles on the bottom and pour the vegetables evenly on top.
- Pour the cream sauce over the entire dish.
- If needed, pour up to an additional cup of half-and-half OR whole milk over the dish to ensure the entire top is covered with sauce or cream.
- Bake uncovered in the oven for 10 minutes, or until the entire dish is warmed through.
Additional Recipe Notes
The comfort food recipe calls for a medium squash and 10 oz of greens, but you can easily use a larger squash and a full pound of greens. If you do, you might have to divide this between two pans in order to get it all to fit. Which actually makes it the perfect dish to freeze for later! (hint hint)
Gluten-free variation: Use gluten-free pasta and an appropriate gluten-free flour for thickening (use your best judgement between a starch like tapioca or potato, or an actual GF flour).
- squash: $1.50
- olive oil: $0.26
- pasta: $1.00
- bacon: $0.75
- butter: $0.36
- collard greens: $1
- onion: $0.25
- garlic: $.040
- flour: $0.02
- milk: $0.75
- rosemary: $0.05
- nutmeg/paprika/cayenne: $.01
- Parmesan: $1.75
Total cost for Creamy Squash Pasta Bake comfort food is $8.10.
This comfort food dish serves my family of four for TWO dinners. It’s pretty rich, so a single serving goes a long way. If you’re looking to trim costs, I recommend halving this and serving it alongside a simple salad. Or, make the whole thing and freeze half, per my suggestion above. That would make dinner less than $5!