Mozzarella Meatball Casserole
I’ll never forget an email I received from one of my best friends shortly after we graduated college. “I missed you,” the email began, “so I made meatballs.”
Although it sounds strange at first, when I reflect more deeply on my friend’s statement, I can hardly imagine a more genuine expression of affection than meatballs. They’re shaped tenderly by hand, rely on the bond of different ingredients, and exude feelings of comfort and familiarity. They’re a dish for a cozy evening, spent with the people you love, when food and company warm you inside and out.
A few weeks ago, the air was especially crisp and Ben was spending more evenings in his office than outside of it, so I decided that a batch of comfort food was in ordered. I recalled my friend’s statement and combined his suggestion of meatballs with my Midwestern upbringing’s definition of comfort food: casseroles. One giant skillet, a batch of homemade turkey meatballs, and a shower of fresh mozzarella cheese later, and today’s recipe for Mozzarella Meatball Casserole was born.
This meatball casserole recipe begins with zesty homemade turkey meatballs. I used a blend of Italian turkey sausage and ground turkey, so they are plenty juicy and offer loads of flavor, while still being lean and healthy.
The pasta is whole wheat, which is no more work to cook than regular white pasta but offers far greater health benefits in the protein, fiber, and nutrient departments. If you’ve struggled to eat whole wheat pasta in the past, I highly recommend DeLallo brand (not a sponsored post—I just really love their products). I’ve eaten every brand of whole wheat pasta on the market, and none compares to DeLallo for its pleasant flavor and texture. As you’ll see in a moment, my taste-testers didn’t believe me when I told them that the pasta was whole wheat.
To instantly up the health-factor of the meatball casserole further, I stirred in a pack of frozen, thawed spinach, whose mild taste is nearly imperceptible in the final dish, especially when combined with the casserole’s final flourish: fresh mozzarella both stirred into then noodles and layered in thick slices over the top. You’ll love the way the cheese oozes and stretches with every forkful.
By the time this meatball casserole was finished baking, the aroma of rich tomatoes, tender sausage, and melting cheese had transformed my kitchen into a little slice of Italy. Ben wasn’t home, but it felt wrong to keep this big pan of meatball casserole comfort all to myself. Meatballs are an expression of love; they need to be shared.
I called up Ben’s parents and drove the meatball casserole over to their house for an impromptu dinner. I’m ecstatic to share that both of my unsuspecting taste testers had no idea that this meatball casserole was healthy. Ben’s mom didn’t believe me when I told her the pasta was whole wheat, and his dad was surprised to hear that the meatballs were made of turkey, not beef. The spinach was imperceptible too. This meatball casserole recipe is stealthy healthy comfort food at its finest.
Mozzarella Meatball Casserole also reheats beautifully, so it’s an excellent option for a make-ahead meal or leftovers throughout the week. It’s rich, hearty, and equally appropriate for a dinner party or a weeknight family meal.
Mozzarella Meatball Casserole: the new way to say, “I love you,” “I miss you,” and “Hey, you deserve something special today.” Hallmark, you should be very, very nervous.
Mozzarella Meatball Casserole
- 6 ounces whole wheat pasta — any shape you love
- 2-3 slices whole wheat bread — for making 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 1 pound extra lean ground turkey
- 8 ounces spicy Italian turkey sausage — casings removed
- 1 large egg — lightly beaten.
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil — divided, plus additional for tossing the pasta
- 1 small yellow onion
- 2 cloves garlic — minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 32 ounces prepared red pasta sauce — about 3 1/2 cups
- 10 ounces frozen chopped spinach — squeezed dry
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella — half shredded or torn, half cut into thin slices (part skim is OK but do not use fat free), about 2 cups total
Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until barely al dente according to package instructions. You want it to still be firmer than you would ordinarily eat it, as it will cook further in the oven. Drain, toss with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking, then set aside.
Pulse the bread slices in a food processor until coarse crumbs form. Measure 3/4 cup crumbs into a large mixing bowl. Add the ground turkey, turkey sausage, egg, salt, Parmesan, and parsley. With your fingers or two forks, mix lightly until the ingredients are combined, being careful not to compact the meat. Form the mixture into 2-inch balls. You should have about 28 or so balls total.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep, oven proof skillet over medium high. Add the meatballs, then cook, turning a few times, until all sides are browned, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a plate.
To the skillet, add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onion and cook until beginning to brown and soften, about 4 minutes, then add the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the jarred pasta sauce and spinach. Return the meatballs to the pan and let simmer in the sauce until they are cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Once the meatballs are cooked, add the drained pasta and the 4 ounces shredded mozzarella to the skillet with the meatballs and sauce, then gently stir to combine. Top with the remaining 4 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese, then transfer the skillet to your oven. Bake until the cheese is melted and lightly crisp on top and the edges are bubbling, 15-20 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes, then enjoy!
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