I called this an improv pasta bake when I posted it on Instagram a few days ago. That’s because I usually use this combination of sauces—the spinach and paneer sauce, and the tomato sauce—together but in different ways. I’ll explain that confusing statement: for example, I make these stuffed banana peppers where you roast banana peppers and stuff them with the spinach and paneer filling. The tomato sauce gets slathered on top before being baked. Think cannelloni, but with banana peppers instead of pasta.
Or sometimes I stuff the green sauce in between butterflied chicken breasts, pan-fry them, and use the tomato serve as a serving sauce. (This is a fun recipe where you bash the hell out of chicken breasts with a rolling pin or a meat mallet. Very therapeutic, all the bashing.)
All this is a very roundabout way of saying that if you know that a certain set of ingredients works together—in this case spinach, paneer, green chillies, tomatoes and mozzarella—it’s easy to find different permutations and combinations using these as the base. Once you have the flavours down, think texture. I could’ve mixed both the sauces together into one homogenous orange and baked it. This would still have tasted alright, but layering them like this gave it some interest. Pockets of tomato sauce with that crusty cheese on top. It was a good textural contrast to all that creamy spinach and paneer underneath. At the risk of giving you some woo-woo talk, do this—visualize the dish in your head before you make it. Whether it’s for a spot of improv cooking or with a recipe you’re following, you’d be surprised at the difference this makes.
The tomato sauce here is very basic and it helps to batch-cook and freeze. If you think making your own ginger and garlic paste for the week is a good time-saving hack, this is miles ahead of that. Keep it neutral with just onions, garlic and tomatoes. If you want to make chutney with it, temper with spices. If you want to go down the Italian route like I did here, add oregano and chilli flakes. Also especially convenient to have around if you cook a lot of North Indian curries.
Pasta – use any small or medium pasta you have. I wouldn’t pick a noodle variant like spaghetti if I can avoid it. Mozzarella that goes over the top – use as much or as little as you’d like (giving you a range below. I usually go with the lower end of the scale.)
SPINACH, PANEER & TOMATO PASTA BAKE
- 220 grams dried pasta (I used conchiglie)
- 50-100 grams mozzarella, grated
Spinach & paneer sauce:
- 200 grams spinach (fresh or frozen)
- 200 grams paneer, cubed
- 2-3 green chillies, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup milk
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Salt, to taste
- 6 large tomatoes
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 7 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp dried chilli flakes (or to taste)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Salt, to taste
- Cook pasta according to packet instructions. Drain and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 160 C.
- Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the tomatoes. Blanch for 3-5 mins until the skins start to peel off. Run them under cold water and peel away the skins and discard. Add the tomatoes to a blender. Blend to a smooth purée.(Use the same pot for the sauce; no washing necessary.)
- Tomato sauce: add olive oil to the pot and sauté onions and garlic until lightly browned around the edges. Add tomato purée, oregano, chilli flakes, pepper and salt. Cook over a medium heat for 7-10 mins, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Spinach & paneer sauce: add spinach and chillies to a pan and toss for 2-3 mins until the spinach begins to wilt down.
- (If using frozen spinach, do the same thing. If it leeches out too much water, squeeze out the excess moisture with your hand after it cools, and then add to the blender.)
- Transfer the wilted spinach and chillies to a blender jar. Add paneer, milk and salt and blend it all together to get a smooth sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Layer 1: Toss the cooked pasta with the spinach and paneer sauce. Transfer to your baking dish.
- Layer 2: Pour the tomato sauce over the pasta in an even layer.
- Layer 3: Dot the grated mozzarella over the tomato sauce.
- Bake for 25 mins until the top is golden and crusty. Serve immediately.
- Can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. Dot the mozzarella on top just before it goes into the oven in this case.