Lightened Up Pumpkin Pasta Bake

I don’t know about you, but here in New York the weather has taken a turn for the…brutal. Hello, sub 30, I’m over you already.

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Yesterday was the first hit of this chill and fortunately, I was at work all day. This is a good thing because, A. I was indoors all day with no need to venture outside, B. I work at a fitness studio which, paradoxically enough means that there is both an abundance of food and an ever present availability to jump on a piece of exercise equipment and warm up.

I’ve worked at both gyms and restaurants and I kid you not, more food is available at the gym. So, yesterday before my class I was sitting in the lounge going over my playlist with one of my coworkers. On the table in between us sat a box of homemade cream cheese swirl brownies, a full container of chocolate coconut clusters, a giant, never-ending tub of hummus, a bag of baby carrots, two various bags of chips, several tupperwares of undisclosed pre-packed meals and of course, a fully stocked fridge. As my coworker and I mindlessly dabbled into alternating bites of everything she paused for a moment to ask, “why can’t we stop eating?”. I didn’t even have to think when I automatically answered, with a sigh, “‘cuz it’s cold“. She nodded in agreement and we both popped a coconut chocolate into our mouths.

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Because it’s cold.

It’s cold and food warms the soul and comfort food especially warms the heart. The right comfort food meal takes you back your childhood, when you came inside red nosed and teary eyed, shivering from playing outside in the snow and your mom had a smorgasbord of your favorites, whether it was pasta, a casserole, hot chocolate, cookies or cake. One bite and that bitterness of the harsh outdoors melted away. That first bite was as a good as a big, warm hug.

Of course, my coworker tenderly pointed out the other side of eating “‘cuz it’s cold”: “maybe we just want to put on an extra layer of fat to keep us warm”.

Insert blank stare Emoji face.

Oh, and this pasta.

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That spinach is just the start. This pasta bake/casserole/whatever you want to call it is the comfort food for when you want the comfort but not the excess fat and calories. I mean, let’s be honest…I love to indulge but I also like to fuel my body with nutritious foods that not only comfort my soul but replenish and fortify my body.

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This dish certainly doesn’t feel healthy, but it’s full of whole grains, lean meat, and veggies galore. Each bite is packed with pumpkin, spinach and all of their accompanying vitamins and minerals. Of course there’s some cheese, because what is comfort food without cheese? BUT, this is part-skim mozzarella and there’s only just enough to satisfy that cheesy desire without being too overwhelming or making it feel like you’re eating a plate of cheese with a side of pasta. Not that that’s a bad thing.

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As for wine?

Let me revert to my favorite sentence of all time:

“Everything in moderation”.

Please enjoy a glass with this meal. I went with white but red is lovely with this dish as well, plus you’ll get your antioxidants.

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It’s only getting colder so just go make this already.

PS…It freezes wonderfully. Freeze in individual portions and take out a day early to thaw in the fridge, reheat in the oven at 350 for about 10 minutes and enjoy anytime the need for comfort but desire to stay within your same jean size hits.

Lightened Up Pumpkin Pasta Bake

Inspired by THIS recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 Box Whole Wheat [or gluten free alternative, such as brown rice or quinoa pasta] Penne
  • 4 Links Trader Joe’s Cranberry Apple Turkey Sausage
  • 1 Can Pure Pumpkin
  • 1 TBSP Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1 tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp Nutmeg
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 2/3 cup plain unsweetened almond milk or skim milk [I used almond]
  • 2/3 cup part skim shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 2 TBSP fresh grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 package of fresh spinach (4 cups)

Directions

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and spray a large casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray. Prepare pasta according to directions (I cooked for 2 minutes LESS than the suggested time so the pasta would still have a bit of a bite after baking).

In a large skillet over medium heat, combine pumpkin, flour and spices. Stir occasionally for 5 minutes or so while you cut your sausages into discs. Next, pour your milk into the pumpkin mixture and stir for 3-4 minutes until it thickens and comes together, then stir in your sausage slices.

Next, mix the drained pasta into your pumpkin mixture in the skillet. The original recipe called to add 1 cup of reserved pasta water, but to cut back on the starch I added a cup of tap water…worked fine. You just want some liquid to thin the sauce out a bit and make sure every last piece of pasta gets covered. It will look thin at this point, but it thickens back up quite a bit while baking.

Turn off the heat on the stove and scoop half the pasta mix into your sprayed casserole dish. Next, add all the spinach on top (don’t be afraid to really smush it in there!) and finally with half the mozzarella cheese. Top that with remaining half of pasta which will wilt the spinach down leaving enough room to fill the dish with the pasta mixture. Top the pasta with the rest of your mozzarella and sprinkle parmesan over.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for for 20 minutes. Remove from oven to take the foil off and continue to cook for another 5 minutes to continue melting the cheese and crisp up the top.

Let rest for 5 minutes, then serve and ENJOY!!

Glass of wine optional ;)

xoxo

PS…I know EVERY SINGLE recipe has pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin…I may have one or two more…just bare with me while I get it out of my system, k? :)