Vegetarian Baked Ziti with Cauliflower
Published Oct 17, 2023
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Tender cauliflower florets melt into a rich sauce in this Vegetarian Baked Ziti with a hidden vegetable boost. It makes a cheesy meatless baked pasta that you can assemble up to a day ahead and bake whenever you’re ready.
Baked ziti is lasagna’s lazier cousin, and I am totally here for it. You still get all the layers of flavorful sauce, melty cheese, and tender pasta without the need to carefully stack all of those layers. Just mix it all together, pour it in a casserole dish and bake until it’s bubbly and golden on top.
This version has a little sneaky vegetable action that adds nothing but delicious flavor and texture in the form of tender, creamy cauliflower. It doesn’t take any extra effort or dishes because you’ll add the cauliflower florets to the pasta as it boils.
And if you’re into more sneaky vegetables, try my Sweet Potato Mac and Cheese.
There’s really nothing complicated about this ziti. It uses the world’s simplest homemade tomato sauce and just happens to hold a few servings of cauliflower which add a savory flavor and a bit of texture to balance the springy noodles.
The thing that makes the sauce here extra rich and creamy is a tip I borrowed from Martha Stewart to fold cream cheese into the sauce. It’s an easy addition that adds great depth and creaminess to the dish.
Cozy, warm, and with sneaky vegetables, let’s make this one together. Here’s how.
- Dried Pasta – Use a shape that will soak up sauce and stand up to cheese. Ziti is, of course, the classic shape to use in baked ziti, but rigatoni and penne are also great options.
- Crushed Tomatoes – Use crushed canned tomatoes to make the base of the simple homemade sauce. Tomato puree is very similar and can be used in place of crushed tomatoes.
- Garlic, Dried Oregano, Dried Basil, Red Pepper Flakes, Sugar – These ingredients balance the sauce and build a simple Italian-inspired flavor in the dish. Feel free to taste the sauce and increase any of these if you’d like the sauce to be more herby, spicy, or need some sweetness to balance out the tart tomatoes.
- Frozen Cauliflower Florets – I love the simplicity of adding frozen cauliflower to the baked ziti, but fresh cauliflower florets will work just fine. See below for tips on how to adjust the cook time if using fresh. Both frozen and fresh florets will cook very fast, so add them to the pasta when it is nearly finished boiling.
- Cream Cheese and Shredded Mozzarella – This combo makes the sauce creamy and cheesy.
- Parmesan Cheese – Rich, nutty, savory parmesan cheese adds a key layer of flavor to the dish. Sprinkle some on top so that it gets golden brown and lightly crisp as the dish bakes.
How to Boil Cauliflower with Pasta
You can boil cauliflower florets along with pasta in the same pot. Be sure to season the cooking water generously with salt as this will flavor both the pasta and the vegetables. Boil pasta according to package directions, adding fresh cauliflower 2 minutes before the end of the recommended cook time and frozen cauliflower 1 minute before the end of the recommended cook time. Drain.
- Make it Gluten-Free – Just use your favorite gluten-free pasta.
- Add Protein – Try adding cooked chicken or, for a vegetarian protein, fold in some white beans.
- Mix up the Cheese – Provolone, havarti, Swiss, or crumbled goat cheese would all work in place of (or in addition to) the mozzarella. Or try using a combination of several types. A half cup of ricotta cheese folded in right before baking adds a nice flavor and texture too.
- Add Fresh Basil – To keep this recipe simple, I used dried basil, but fresh basil is fantastic here too. Fold it into the sauce and then add some chopped basil leaves sprinkled over the top after baking.
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Vegetarian Baked Ziti with Cauliflower Recipe
- 9×13 Baking Dish
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil (or chopped fresh basil)
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 3 15-ounce cans crushed tomatoes (or tomato puree)
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 pound dried pasta, like ziti, rigatoni, or penne
- 16 ounces frozen cauliflower florets
- 4 ounces cream cheese, cubed
- 8 ounces mozzarella, shredded
- 1/2 + 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 450°F / 232°C. Rub a 9×13 baking dish with oil or spray it with nonstick cooking spray.
- Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and then the garlic, dried oregano, dried basil, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
- Stir in tomatoes and sugar. Bring to a simmer. Put the lid on but leave it slightly ajar (this will help prevent sauce splatters to cause a mess on your counter). Simmer with the lid slightly ajar for 15 to 20 minutes.
- While sauce simmers, boil the pasta according to package directions. In the last minute of cooking, add cauliflower florets. Drain pasta and cauliflower.
- Remove the sauce from the heat and whisk in the cream cheese.
- Stir 3 cups sauce and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese into pasta and cauliflower.
- Pour 3/4 cup sauce into the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Top with half of the the mozzarella. Add the pasta and cauliflower over top.
- Top the pasta with any remaining sauce, remaining mozzarella, and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.
- Transfer the dish the oven and bake until bubbly and melted, about 10 minutes.
- Turn on the oven’s broiler and broil until the top is golden, 3 to 4 minutes more.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.