Recipe: Slow-cooker baked ziti with spinach and mushrooms

wpid-img_20150412_205358.jpgKnowing my love of slow cooking, my close and personal superior Mindy Celeste sent me a recipe from Real Simple for slow-cooker rigatoni. It’s the best kind of crock pot recipe, requiring little preparation beyond chopping and mixing.

The original recipe calls for thawing and draining the spinach, but MC said, “I did not thaw or squeeze anything as I used whole wheat pasta (penne), so the extra moisture was needed.”

I followed her advice and made some additional tweaks. I had some dried mushrooms sitting in my pantry that I wanted to use up, so I subbed those for half of the fresh ones called for in the original recipe without adding any extra liquid. I also reduced the garlic since I wouldn’t be sauteing it, and garlic can have a bitter flavor when it’s not sauteed. And since I didn’t want to make any extra grocery trips, I used a mix of cottage cheese and neufchatel (low-fat cream cheese) instead of ricotta.

It made a lot – enough to fill my 3-quart slow-cooker to the top. It was pretty good, but I think it would be even better if I’d sauteed the onions and mushrooms first. If I make this again, I think I’ll give that a try, sauteeing the onions and mushrooms in the bottom of the slow cooker for about an hour, and using that instead of the raw ones called for in the recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon black or white pepper
  • salt to taste
  • 2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach
  • 1 large or two small onions, chopped
  • 8 ounces sliced button mushrooms
  • 1 ounce dried mushrooms, sliced (or 8 ounces any fresh mushroom)
  • 8 ounces whole wheat ziti or penne
  • 1½ cups cottage cheese
  • ½ cup (4 ounces) neufchatel or cream cheese
  • 6 ounces grated mozzarella
  • Parmesan or Romano cheese, to taste

Instructions

  1. Let the neufchatel soften at room temperature.
  2. Combine crushed tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and black pepper. If your can of tomatoes was salt-free, add ½ to ¾ teaspoon salt. (Save yourself some cleaning by mixing these ingredients in the tomato can.)
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the onion, mushrooms and dry noodles.
  4. Mix the neufchatel and cottage cheese in a blender or small bowl.
  5. Layer ⅓ of the tomato mixture on the bottom of the slow cooker.
  6. Top with ¼ cup water or broth.
  7. Layer other ingredients in this order:
    1. ½ the pasta mixture.
    2. One package of spinach, breaking up the spinach as you go.
    3. ⅓ tomato mixture
    4. ½ the cottage cheese mixture
    5. ½ the mozzarella
  8. Repeat step 7.
  9. Cook covered on high for 3–4 hours, until pasta is tender.
  10. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano.

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