Kohlman: Spaghetti is an ideal comfort food for the dog days of winter

This wonderful baked spaghetti is incredibly cheesy but also has a good amount of vegetables, which we should always be eating more of.

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January can be a month that lags on (and on). Therefore, it’s important to have something to look forward to.

This thing you’re looking forward to doesn’t have to be big and fancy, like a sun-drenched trip to a warmer climate. It can just be what’s going to be placed on your dinner table that evening.

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Celebrating the small, almost insignificant moments in life are just as important as the big ones. And, at this time of year, that means something good to eat, and maybe a good book to dive into, or finishing that puzzle on the table that the cat has miraculously avoided.

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Rich and hearty pastas are perfect for this time of year, and I always look forward to making (and eating!) them. They’re the epitome of comfort food and, like a hug from your favourite person, they soothe the soul from head to toe.

This wonderful baked spaghetti is incredibly cheesy but also has a good amount of vegetables, which we should always be eating more of. Spaghetti is a family favourite and, in this recipe, mushrooms are diced up small and cooked with the ground beef in a savoury, well-seasoned tomato sauce. Because they have such a great meaty texture, mushrooms are a natural fit for blending and extending ground meat. Mushroom haters will hardly know they’re there!

This method of blending and extending ground beef not only helps to save money at the checkout, but there are also nutritional bonus points. Mushrooms are great to use year-round as they are the only vegetable that contains vitamin D, plus they’re full of other antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds. I minced up cremini mushrooms for this comforting and delicious twist on spaghetti and meat sauce, but button or even portabella would be wonderful.

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There are a couple of steps to making this pasta, but it’s largely all done in a skillet — the bigger the better for this dish. Be sure not to fully cook the spaghetti, as it will cook further in the oven. I used ricotta in the cheese mixture, but you could use cottage cheese if that’s what you’ve got on hand. I like to use tongs to stir the spaghetti into the sauce, and don’t be too particular about making sure the cheese mixture is stirred in evenly. It’s nice to find a pocket of cheese within the pasta.

With plenty of crispy bits and golden cheesy goodness, this is one skillet meal that you’re sure to have on heavy rotation in your household. The dish can even be prepared the night before, then pop it in the oven when you’re ready to bake. Just add about five to seven minutes to the baking time to ensure the pasta is heated through.

Beef and mushroom baked spaghetti.
Photo by Renee Kohlman.

Beef and Mushroom Baked Spaghetti

225 g dried spaghetti
1 tbsp canola oil
250 g cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
500 g lean ground beef
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp dry mustard powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
3 cups canned crushed tomatoes (not tomato sauce)
2 tsp brown sugar
2 cups baby kale or spinach
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

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1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

2. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the spaghetti for five to six minutes. Do not overcook as the pasta will continue to cook in the oven. Drain well and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the mushrooms and onion for three minutes or until softened and no moisture remains in the skillet. Add the beef and garlic. Cook, stirring and breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, for about 10 minutes until the beef is no longer pink. Stir in the Italian seasoning, mustard powder, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and cook for another minute or two.

4. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir in the crushed tomatoes and brown sugar. Cook for about five minutes. Stir in the baby kale or spinach and remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, ricotta, mozzarella and cheddar. Gently stir the spaghetti into the skillet. Tongs work well for this. Stir in the cheese mixture — it’s okay if there are some pockets of cheese that aren’t blended. Smooth the top and cover with aluminum foil.

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6. Place the skillet on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle with the Parmesan. Bake for another 10-15 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Let the pasta cool for about five minutes before serving. Makes four to six servings.

Note: The pasta may also be baked in a greased 12-inch baking dish instead of the skillet.

Beef and mushroom baked spaghetti.
Beef and mushroom baked spaghetti. Photo by Renee Kohlman.

Renée Kohlman has been cooking and baking professionally for over 20 years. Her best-selling debut cookbook, All the Sweet Things (TouchWood Editions), received accolades at the 2018 Taste Canada Awards. Her second cookbook, Vegetables: A Love Story (TouchWood Editions), was named one of the top 100 books in 2021 by The Globe and Mail. Renée is often in her kitchen, baking gourmet cookies, which she sells at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market every weekend.

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