With food freedom I’ve rediscovered this baked sausage pasta dish

I played soccer in high school. Before every home game, one of our parents hosted a dinner party for the team. I remember eating chicken enchiladas until I felt like my stomach might burst. I remember brisket sandwiches that taught me what “pulled brisket” is. And I remember sitting on my parents’ deck, with a plate full of one of my mom’s go-to recipes—a baked sausage pasta, with tomatoes and lots of cheese.

The original recipe came from a Cooking Light issue, but after a few takes, we knew it by heart. With three kids playing sports, all in middle or high school, I’m sure my mom held on tightly to those filling, large casserole-type meals. We had no complaints! Sausage, pasta, and cheese? What’s not to love? There was always a side of buttered french bread, and a salad.

This meal comes to mind when I think of coming home from college breaks in the winter, sitting down with the family after too many weeks—more likely months–away. It still reminds me of those soccer days. And it reminds me of being a college student at home, completely baffled by how many food choices I had at my disposal, and being able to reheat leftovers. It’s comforting, cozy, and nostalgic.

I was a vegetarian, then “pescetarian,” for about seven years.

When I came home for holidays or summer vacations as an adult, this baked penne and sausage dish was (and is) still a family staple. In my early non-meat-eating days, I was annoyed at how hard it was to pick out the little crumbled sausage bits. I’d eat my plate of pasta and cheese and tomatoes and mostly feel satisfied. I didn’t feel I was missing out on anything, but also didn’t love being the one at the table forking sausage around my plate as I ate. (Sometimes my mom separated some pasta and sauce for me, so I didn’t eat like a toddler who couldn’t accept the ONE THING about any given dish.)

Earlier this summer, I had an intense craving for fried chicken.

It’s my one and only strong pregnancy craving to-date, but I don’t want to entirely chalk it up to hormones or the tiny human, or whatever it is that cause pregnancy cravings. The running joke is that “if/when” I began to eat animal products again, I’d start with fried chicken. So it’s safe to assume this would have happened at some point. Though, in those early pregnancy days, I had a long list of foods that did NOT sound appetizing, and a short list that did. So, when fried chicken popped into my head on the metro, and I couldn’t get it out for the entire day, I went for it.

We walked down the block to a southern-style restaurant that’s known for their fried chicken and waffles brunch dish, but had to pick from the dinner menu. (To be honest, this isn’t exactly what I had mind—I would have been more satisfied with something like a Wendy’s fried chicken sandwich, or Chick Fil-A  nuggets.)  You can read more about that meal here.

After that, I no longer identified as a vegetarian OR pescetarian.

I don’t admonish anyone who chooses to omit animal foods if the reasons are sound and based on something they believe in, and I don’t negate the research that shows us benefits to eating a (mostly) plant-based diet. All for it! I do have concerns when it becomes limiting and restrictive, or a way to “diet.” And to me, at this point, that’s how it had begun to feel. Restrictive. Limiting. But that early pregnancy hunger will break down any hesitations you have—at least it did for me.

Since then, I haven’t felt the need to post about every meal I have with meat (or chicken, or fish, or beans).

If I did mention anything, it would be how odd it is to re-learn how to cook certain things as an adult. Most foods are not “new” to me at this point in my 31 years. Yet, browsing the options for chickens, steaks, or sausages always presents an unusual challenge. Cooking these proteins again is a learning process. I refer to my husband often, or in the case of the aforementioned baked sausage pasta, my mom or a friend who was visiting us this weekend. “Do I have to peel the casing off this sausage? Or is it edible?” I asked. Seriously.

This baked sausage pasta dish made its way back into my repertoire. 

If you’ve been following along, we don’t currently live in our own house. We’re staying with wonderful friends, and we share meals with them most nights of the week. Sometimes it’s take-out, sometimes it’s a mix of Chick-Fil-A and homemade salads, sometimes we go to a brewery for their BBQ (pictured below) and live music; sometimes they cook (which is to say we get VERY spoiled), and sometimes we cook.

brisket and sides
Not the baked sausage pasta, but another meal I thoroughly enjoyed with friends recently.

Recently, I knew I wanted to make something simple and filling, warm and long-lasting.

The baked sausage pasta dish came to mind, and here we are. I’ve made it twice in the past few weeks, both times for a small group of adults that I love. It feels good to cook for good friends. It feels good to make a dish that’s satisfying to everyone at the table. It’s also very convenient to have leftovers that taste even better reheated, so I know this dish will be another staple in our little household as we grow to a family of three (soon-ish!).

Here it is, for you to enjoy too, friend.

Baked Sausage Pasta Dish

(This could quite easily be a vegan or vegetarian dish, if you prefer to substitute meatless sausages and vegan “cheese” options.)

  • 1 box penne pasta
  • 1 package Mild or Sweet Italian-seasoned sausages (I go with pork, my mom likes Turkey, you may want meatless—you do you!)
  • 2 Tbsp oil (or whatever looks like enough oil in your pan)
  • Some minced garlic
  • 2 cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste (but TBH, I left this out last time and it turned out just fine)
  • 1 package baby spinach leaves*
  • 1 bag (~2 cups, I think) shredded mozzarella cheese

Option to mix in whatever other cheese you love and must have.
*My own addition, because I like to use up the green in the fridge! You could do kale, or any other good cooking green here.

  1. Boil water, cook the pasta.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  3. Heat the oil in a big stir-fry pan. Add the garlic, then the sausage. Cook for a few minutes, until the sausage starts to brown. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes (keep the juices!), and spinach/greens. Stir until it’s heated through.
  4. Drain the cooked pasta. Then toss it into the sausage tomato mix. Stir together.
  5. Pour the entire mixture into a baking pan (whatever size works for you—I usually use a glass casserole thing), and top with the cheese. Bake for 10-15 minutes, depending on how you like your cheese topping.

(These loose instructions may demonstrate why I rarely post recipes—but hey, it works for me. And I don’t have a photo of this, because I forgot to take any last weekend.)

Serve with your choice of salad or bread or whatever roasted vegetable sounds good, or no side at all! Your meal, your choice. 

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