Make wells in the broccoli and pasta mixture for each egg – Pictures by CK Lim
Make wells in the broccoli and pasta mixture for each egg – Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, May 31 – There is nothing quite like pantry pasta – the way it uses up all the odds and ends in your kitchen, and the rather quick way it all comes together. Speed and thrift are virtues.

Yet sometimes we don’t have to go so fast. What’s the hurry when so many of us find ourselves with ample time on our hands, especially on the weekends?

With more hours to play with in the kitchen, a few extra steps beyond boiling pasta in water don’t seem as forbidding. A cheese bake is one way to add layers of flavour and texture to your ordinary pasta.

Include some broccoli, a superfood with plenty of fibre and antioxidants, and you’d have a nutritional powerhouse of a meal. It’s also a sneaky technique for inserting more greens into your family’s diet; many kids run at the sight of anything green in their food (and some adults too, to be honest).

Using cheese to hide the greens? Classic kitchen trick. And it works too.

To give this casserole a bit of a twist, I’ve taken inspiration from the traditionally Middle Eastern and North African dish adored by brunch fans around the world: shakshuka. There are many ways of preparing shakshuka but in its simplest incarnation, it’s simply eggs baked in a well-spiced tomato sauce.

Therefore, rather than employing a conventional béchamel sauce – which has the added step of making a roux with flour and butter before adding milk – why not go with a spicy tomato sauce base and finish the cheese bake with eggs?

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It’s the best of everything served in a single dish! What better way to perk up your weekend than having fewer things to wash afterwards?

SPICY BROCCOLI CHEESE BAKE

Theoretically you could use just about any type of cheese for a cheese bake. Given that broccoli can have a formidable flavour of its own (some consider it almost earthy and grassy – it’s definitely very green tasting), milder cheeses such as Brie wouldn’t hold up against it.

Broccoli is a nutrient dense vegetable that can be cooked in so many ways
Broccoli is a nutrient dense vegetable that can be cooked in so many ways

You’d be better off employing a stronger tasting cheese such as an aged Cheddar and Parmesan, both of which I’ve used here. Some prefer finishing with a softer cheese like mozzarella that has wonderful melting qualities but we’re looking for cheesy crustiness here rather than strings of oozing cheese.

Using a variety of cheeses can add a good mix of flavours and textures
Using a variety of cheeses can add a good mix of flavours and textures

Feel free to omit the dried chillies, especially its seeds that contain most of its fiery properties, if you prefer your casserole less spicy.

It’s almost a must though, for when these are combined with the olive oil and garlic, the dried chillies form the aglio, olio e peperoncino base that works so well with pasta.

The Italians know what works, though they might be horrified at the addition of cheese and broccoli but that’s a problem for another day…

Ingredients

Olive oil

3-4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly

3-4 dried chillies, sliced thinly (remove seeds if prefer less spicy)

1 can whole plum tomatoes, crushed

2-3 sprigs rosemary (optional)

½ teaspoon dried oregano (optional)

Salt and black pepper to taste

250g fusilli (or other short pasta)

1 medium head (approx 500-750g) broccoli, broken into florets

250g aged Cheddar cheese, grated

100g Parmesan cheese, grated

4 large eggs

Method

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Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Add olive oil to a non-stick pan at medium high heat. Once hot but not smoking, add the garlic and dried chillies. Sauté until the garlic is golden brown but not burnt and the chillies are fragrant.

Lower the heat to medium and add the tomatoes, crushing them with your spatula. You may also use tomato purée or tomato sauce here; whole tomatoes offer more of a texture though. Add the rosemary and oregano if you’re using them.

Once the sauce has thickened (about 10 minutes), season with salt and black pepper to taste. (The sauce can’t be too watery as the broccoli will add moisture to the final dish later as it cooks in the oven.) Remove from heat and set aside.

Any short pasta will work in a cheese bake; here the spiral-shaped fusilli is used
Any short pasta will work in a cheese bake; here the spiral-shaped fusilli is used

Cook the fusilli (or other pasta of choice) in a large pot of generously salted boiling water for about 2 minutes less than the suggested cooking time. When you have about 3-4 minutes before you finish cooking the pasta, add the broccoli florets to allow these to blanch as well.

At the end of the reduced pasta cooking time, drain the pasta and broccoli florets well. Add these to the tomato sauce, then add the aged Cheddar cheese. Mix well till most of the pasta and broccoli florets are coated with the tomato sauce and cheese.

Pour the mixture into an oven-safe casserole dish or a baking tray covered with aluminium foil. I prefer the latter for easy clean-up. Layer with the grated Parmesan cheese.

Eggs add a cheap source of protein to this dish
Eggs add a cheap source of protein to this dish

Now make four wells in the mixture, well spaced apart. Crack each egg into a small bowl before pouring into each well; this is a neater way than cracking the eggs directly into the well. If there are any pieces of shell in the eggs, you can fish them out while they’re still in the bowl and not in the broccoli mixture.

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Place the baking dish in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes or until the egg whites are just about set. This way the egg yolks will still be runny but you may bake for longer if you prefer harder yolks.

Spicy broccoli cheese bake right out of the oven!
Spicy broccoli cheese bake right out of the oven!

Remove from the oven and serve immediately, either on its own or with some crusty bread to mop up the yolk-laced sauce.

For more Weekend Kitchen stories and recipes, visit https://lifeforbeginners.com/weekend-kitchen/.



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