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Three-cheese pasta and vegetable bake is comforting, better for you and easy to make

Three-cheese pasta and vegetable bake is a healthier version of familiar favorite baked ziti.  (Tom McCorkle/For the Washington Post)
Three-cheese pasta and vegetable bake is a healthier version of familiar favorite baked ziti. (Tom McCorkle/For the Washington Post)
By Ellie Krieger Special to the Washington Post

This recipe checks all the boxes for the kind of food I want to usher me into the new year. It’s healthful and comforting (yes, it’s possible to have both!), and it’s convenient – easy to pull together, make ahead and reheat.

It’s a better-for-you spin on a familiar favorite, baked ziti, made with whole-grain pasta (although regular pasta would be fine if you prefer it), packed with vegetables – sautéed mushrooms, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes – and made cheesy and creamy with a more healthful than usual balance of part-skim ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan.

Baked until bubbly inside and melty and golden on top, it’s the kind of dish that’s like a cozy spot in the sun on a cold winter’s day.

This recipe makes 8 to 10 servings, so it is an easy cook-once-eat-twice situation for most families. When I’m just cooking for my husband and myself, rather than baking it all at once in a 9-by-13-inch pan, I divide the batch into two 8-by-8-inch baking dishes and place one, tightly covered, in the freezer to double the dinner-at-the-ready payoff.

It’s an easy win to kick off 2022.

Three-Cheese Pasta and Vegetable Bake

1 pound whole grain or regular penne pasta, or other tube-shaped pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing the pan

1 pound baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, sliced

6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 (16-ounce) bag frozen broccoli, defrosted (may substitute with 5 cups blanched fresh chopped broccoli)

7 sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, drained and thinly sliced (about ⅓ cup)

1 teaspoon dried basil

½ teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 (16-ounce) container part-skim ricotta cheese

4 cups marinara sauce (homemade or store-bought)

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

¼ cup (½ ounce) grated Parmesan cheese

Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for serving (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 2 minutes less than suggested in the package directions. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.

Meanwhile, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Brush a 9-by-13-inch ovenproof dish with oil.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until their liquid evaporates and they begin to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until aromatic, 2 minutes more. Add the broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to combine.

Add the vegetables to the drained pasta in the pot, along with the ricotta and marinara, and stir to combine well. Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish and evenly spread it out. Sprinkle the top with the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and cover the dish loosely with foil.

Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is melted. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Storage notes: Refrigerate for up to 4 days, or cover tightly and freeze for up to 3 months.

Ellie Krieger is a cookbook author and registered nutritionist.

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