This isn’t your nonna’s traditional baked pasta.
It’s nothing like lasagna. And a far cry from manicotti.
Yes, there’s pasta, cheese, and sausage (well… chicken sausage). But the cheeses are cottage cheese and feta – not your typical Italian ingredients.
Yet somehow, it all still works: it’s gooey, savory, and noodley.
Being married to someone who is fifty percent Italian, I tend to avoid making Italian recipes too often. A girl can only take being told, “It’s good, but it’s not my mom’s,” so many times, after all.
As a dietitian, I enjoy creating healthier versions of traditional recipes. And while I can usually trick my family by sneaking in extra vegetables, using leaner proteins, and reducing fat, my husband can always tell when I’ve lightened up a pasta dish.
Even if you have some Italian food purists in your house, this recipe may be just what you’ve been looking for.
First of all, it’s far from being traditionally Italian, which puts it in a category all its own.
Secondly, the savoriness of the feta and creaminess from the cottage cheese make this baked pasta casserole taste more indulgent than it actually is.
So, what makes this recipe healthier than other cheese-filled baked pasta dishes out there? A few simple swaps that will work in other recipes as well:
- Add vegetables: not only do they provide extra vitamins and minerals, they also add more volume without a lot of calories. Zucchini, peppers, broccoli, spinach, kale, and brussels sprouts are some of my favorites.
- Choose a lean protein: instead of ground beef or sausage, swap in ground turkey or chicken sausage.
- Use whole wheat noodles: for a little extra fiber, swap all or half of the regular noodles with whole wheat ones.
- Cut back on the cheese: just like sugar and salt, we could all probably benefit from reducing the amount of cheese that we add to some recipes. To make up for a loss of flavor, use cheese with a strong flavor – like Pecorino Romano, Asiago, and feta – instead of mozzarella.
- Keep it creamy: for the creaminess factor, using cottage cheese may sound weird. But I promise you, it works as a substitute for ricotta! And it’s lower in calories, too. However, it’s important to be mindful of the extra liquid that cottage cheese will add, especially if a recipe includes other wet ingredients such as tomato sauce.
While I used all zucchini for the vegetable portion of the version of this recipe that you see here, sauteed spinach or kale would also work really well – just make sure to squeeze out the extra moisture before adding it to the pasta mixture.
Cottage cheese can also be drained in a colander before using it in a casserole if you like, to cut down on the extra added liquid.
The next time you find yourself in a dinner rut, do yourself and your family a favor by making this recipe. It’s filled with all the makings of a satisfying, yet healthier, meal: soft-yet-chewy noodles, creamy cheese, savory chicken sausage, and sauteed veggies.
All that’s left is pouring a glass of wine to enjoy with your meal. There are healthy antioxidants in there!Print
Shake things up on pasta night with baked penne made with chicken sausage, zucchini, and feta. It’s a healthier option that the whole family will enjoy.
- 2 1/2 cups (about 213 grams) uncooked whole wheat penne pasta
- 6 ounces chicken sausage, casings removed and roughly crumbled
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon avocado oil, divided
- 4 cups sliced and quartered zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese, divided
- 6 ounces low fat cottage cheese
- Cooking oil spray
- Preheat oven to 400°F and bring a large pot of water to a boil.
- Place penne in boiling water and cook for 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
- While pasta cooks, place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 teaspoon oil.
- Once oil is hot, add crumbled sausage to skillet and cook until starting to brown and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
- Return the same skillet to medium-high heat add 1 tablespoon oil. Once oil is hot, add zucchini, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook until zucchini is softened, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Whisk together flour and chicken broth. Add mixture to the pan, stir, and cook another 2 minutes, or until mixture has thickened.
- Add zucchini, cooked sausage, cottage cheese, and about half of the feta to the mixing bowl with the pasta. Stir well to combine.
- Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking oil spray. Pour pasta mixture in the pan. Sprinkle reserved feta on top.
- Bake for 20 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling and pasta is lightly browned on top. Remove from oven and set aside to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
- Category: Pasta
- Method: Stovetop/Baking
- Cuisine: Casserole
Keywords: penne, whole wheat, zucchini, feta, casserole
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Preheat Oven, Boil Water, and Prep and Measure Ingredients
Preheat your oven to 400°F, and bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Wash the vegetables under cool running water. With a sharp knife and sturdy cutting board, Cut the zucchini lengthwise into quarters, and then cut it into slices. Peel and dice the onion, and mince the garlic.
If your feta cheese didn’t come pre-crumbled, crumble it now.
Remove the sausage from the casings and crumble it.
Measure out all of the remaining ingredients.
- To make a vegetarian version, leave out the chicken sausage or choose a suitable meat-free substitute, and substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth. For a vegan version, try dairy-free cheese and almond or cashew ricotta.
- You can also use precooked chicken sausage rather than an uncooked version – just skip Step 3.
- Any type of short pasta will work well, such as small shells, rotini, or bowties. Feel free to use a gluten-free substitute if you need to.
Step 2 – Cook Pasta
Place the penne in the boiling water and cook for 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and place in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
Step 3 – Cook Sausage
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 teaspoon of oil.
Once the oil is hot, add the crumbled sausage to the skillet and cook until it’s starting to brown and it is cooked through inside. This should take about 5 minutes.
Remove the sausage from the pan and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
Step 4 – Cook Zucchini and Make Thickening Slurry
Using the same skillet, add 1 tablespoon of oil and return it to medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the zucchini (or your choice of vegetables), garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook until the zucchini is softened, about 8 minutes. If you are using leafy vegetables instead, cook until wilted.
Add the slurry to the pan with the zucchini and stir to combine. Cook for another 2 minutes, or until the liquid in the pan has thickened. Remove the pan from the heat.
Step 5 – Combine Ingredients and Pour into Casserole Dish
Add the zucchini mixture, cooked sausage, cottage cheese, and half of the feta to the mixing bowl with the pasta. Stir well to combine.
Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray, and pour the pasta mixture into it. Sprinkle the remaining feta on top.
Step 6 – Bake, Cool, and Serve
Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and the top of the casserole has browned slightly.
Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Pile on the Veggies
While you can buy zucchini year-round, I like to use produce that’s in season whenever I can. This helps to help add variety to my diet, and provides novel experiences for my taste buds, too.
Depending on the season, here are some vegetable options that will work well in a pasta bake like this one:
- Spring: asparagus, broccoli, fennel, spinach, Swiss chard
- Summer: bell peppers, eggplant, summer squash, zucchini
- Fall: broccoli, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, cauliflower, pumpkin
- Winter: brussels sprouts, kale, winter squash
Of course, frozen vegetables can also be a good option when certain items aren’t in season, if you have them on hand in the freezer.
Looking for more veggie-packed pasta dishes? Try one of these healthier recipes next:
Share your favorite tips for lightening up pasta night in the comments below, and make sure to show us how much you liked this recipe by leaving a 5-star rating after you try it!
Photos by Kelli McGrane, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on August 12, 2010. Last updated: December 28, 2020 at 16:58 pm. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Kelli McGrane, MS, RD
Kelli McGrane is a Denver-based registered dietitian with a lifelong love of food. She holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in nutrition science from Boston University. As a registered dietitian, she believes in the importance of food to nourish not only your body, but your soul as well. Nutrition is very personal, and you won’t find any food rules here, other than to simply enjoy what you eat.