As much as we want to cook, the idea of convenience foods never goes out of style.
I felt like I had made a great discovery just before Christmas with a jar of Prego Pasta Bake Sauce. The idea of placing uncooked pasta topped with sauce directly in the oven sounded too good to be true. By eliminating the need to preboil pasta, preparation time is cut dramatically, according to information with the product.
I went home and tried it. In a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish, I poured a one-pound package of ziti pasta followed by the 27.5-ounce jar of Pasta Bake Sauce and a full jar, or 31/2 cups, of water. Then I followed the directions on the jar by covering the dish with foil and baking in a 425-degree oven for 30 minutes. I then removed the foil, sprinkled shredded mozzarella cheese (2 cups were advised, but I used 3/4 cup, which was fine) on top, and baked for 10 more minutes.
The result was great. The ziti was tender. The dish was tasty. In 45 minutes, I had dinner. Plus, it made great leftovers via the microwave. The idea is also handy when you need a potluck dish.
That led me to wonder if I could do the same thing with my homemade pasta sauce. When I talked to a spokeswoman for Prego, I was told that the sauce had been specially formulated. But the ingredients on the label looked basic.
I decided to make the recipe again using my homemade pasta sauce, which I made in the morning before I went to work and then refrigerated. The Prego Pasta Bake Sauce jar held 3 1/2 cups, so that evening I used 31/2 cups of my sauce followed by 31/2 cups of water.
The result was similar. My sauce was not as zesty as Prego's, but it had the flavors that my family associates with my sauce.
I have since found that ziti is not always available. Rotini pasta works as well.
I also discovered a Quick Vegetable Manicotti using the same technique. Usually manicotti, very large tubes of pasta about 4 inches long and 1 inch in diameter, are boiled to al dente before they are stuffed. This recipe is extra-convenient because you don't need to precook the pasta.
To fill 12 manicotti (5-ounce package) shells: mix together 1 15-ounce container nonfat ricotta cheese, 1/2 cup wheat germ, 2 lightly beaten egg whites, 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, 3/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend, and 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional). Fill the manicotti shells with the cheese mixture using a teaspoon or small rounded knife. Place in a 9-by-13 inch glass baking dish coated with nonstick spray. Top with 2/3 cup sliced zucchini, 2/3 cup small broccoli florets, and 2/3 cup sliced mushrooms. Combine a 28-ounce jar of reduced sodium spaghetti sauce with 1/2 cup water and spoon over vegetables and pasta to cover completely. Cover dish with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes until pasta is tender. Yield is 6 servings.
The keys to these recipes: You must have enough sauce and liquid, and you must bake with foil covering the glass dish. You'll save 20 minutes in prep time.
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.