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Penne Pasta - Cheap Eats at Bloglander

Man. That was a seriously bad heat wave we had here in Southern California over the holiday weekend. Without the benefits of central air, we were forced to hole up in one room with the air conditioner on. It didn’t help much that our internet connection was spotty, so there was nothing to do but watch TV.

I’ve been meaning to get another 3 Dollars or Less recipe up. I’m going to admit that you can subtract ingredients easily to get this under the magic limit. I went over the 3 dollar limit, but I’m sure others are able to make it even cheaper so I’m still going to keep this recipe in that category. This is a recipe for the ubiquitous and easy Penne Pasta Casserole. Basically, add spaghetti sauce to cooked noodles in a baking dish, top with cheese and bake it in the oven.

Penne Pasta Casserole

1 26oz can spaghetti sauce (Hunt’s, etc.) — $1.00
1/2 med. yellow onion — $0.20
1 tbsp e.v. olive oil — $0.05
2-3 cloves minced garlic — $0.07
1/2 box dry penne or other pasta– $0.50
1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped — $0.20
1 cup grated cheddar — $0.40
1/3 lb ground beef or italian sausage – $1.00
salt, pepper, sugar — negligible

Total: $3.42

Get a pot of salted water going. Over low heat in a large skillet, add some olive oil, onion, garlic and a pinch of salt and sweat / simmer that until translucent (you can keep adding some water to prevent it from drying out). Remove to a plate. Add the ground beef and/or italian sausage (casing removed) and brown that. Drain it, return to pan with onion mixture. Add spaghetti sauce, and cook on low stirring occasionally for about 10-15 min. Add chopped basil (and any other herbs or veggies at this point). You may want to alter the flavor with salt, pepper and sugar depending on your spaghetti sauce.

When water boils, add the penne and UNDERCOOK it. How much depends on you and your oven. I just know you don’t need to cook it all the way because it’s going in the oven. When done to your liking, drain pasta and rinse it in cold water, if you like. I know they say not to rinse it, but because it’s a casserole I feel the noodles benefit a bit from a dunk.

Combine spaghetti sauce mixture and noodles together in the pot. In a shallow baking dish (flatter, shallower allows for more cheese browning area – if you like that.) Top with cheese, bake at 350F for about 30-45 minutes. You might want to cover lightly with aluminum foil until the last 10 minutes. You can also blast it in the broiler if you like the top extra crunchy.

There are literally endless varieties of this type of casserole – and most qualify as Cheap Eats. The only necessary ingredients are pasta, spaghetti sauce, and meat – although I’m sure if you’re vegetarian you can omit or replace that one. If you consider just the basic ingredients, then this comes out at about $2.50.

One of the reasons it might be ok to skip the onions, herbage and other things is because these prepared $1 cans of Hunt’s sauces actually come in different flavors with all the necessary stuff added in – there’s a mushroom variety, a basil variety and various others. But I like to add a little bit of extra stuff, especially since I usually have 1/2 white onion leftover from previous meals.

I only use basil if we have it around, and sometimes substitute some parsley for it. One other possible addition is leftover sliced mushrooms. I’ve made it with cooked carrots, zucchini and canned beans before. Adding 1/2 can of Great Northern beans is a particularly interesting combination.

Penne Pasta - Cheap Eats at Bloglander

For pasta, I used mostaciolli here, but you can use penne, farfalle, or any other shorter pasta. I try not to use longer spaghetti-type noodles because it makes it difficult to serve. We always have boxes of pasta ready to go – I buy them when they’re on sale for a dollar or less.

I actually like a combination of ground beef and italian sausage. We usually get about 1 1/3 lbs of ground beef, cut it into quarters, wrap individually in plastic wrap, and freeze for later usage in a ziploc. Same goes for the italian sausage – buy it in bulk at CostCo and freeze individually in packets of 2-3 each. To use – defrost only what you need. For the meat-atarians, 1/3 lb is probably not enough. But that’s usually good enough for me.

You don’t even need to add any cheese on the top at all. But I’ve found that if you don’t, the top of the noodles poking out of the casserole tend to get a bit too crunchy. The cheese helps as a barrier. I tend to go with cheddar or jack cheese, even though I know mozzarella is more traditional for this type of casserole. Sometimes I sprinkle the top with a bit of parmesan cheese for extra oomph. Yes, I do like thee cheese.

I know you can get even cheaper by making your own sauce – though it’s kind of difficult to beat $1 for the Hunt’s when it’s on sale. I like canned Hunt’s because it is cheap, not overly sweet and has an average flavor balance as far as herbs and onion taste goes.

Price: $3.42
Cheap Eats Score: 9/10

8 Responses to “Penne Pasta Casserole”

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  1. jim Says:

    i agree with you. this dish has endless variations. i always use onion, celery and green pepper. i hadn’t thought of adding beans but that sounds like a good combination.

  2. Bradley Says:

    I love pasta dishes such as this. Toss everything into one dish and back away. Pretty much anything left over works great in these dishes. A perfect fall dish.

  3. Rosemary Says:

    This sounds absolutely delicious!

  4. P Dempsey Says:

    40 cents for a 1 cup shredded cheddar? Wow… where do you shop???? 1 cup is approximately 4 oz of cheese. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen cheese on sale for 1.60 per pound. You must buy 50 lbs of cheese at a time!

    Good basic recipe. We just dealt with college fees and textbooks for our son, and needless to say, paying utilities and grocery bills is a real challenge at the moment. Your cheap eats ideas are great (I was happy to see chicken adobo in your archives… that’s been one of our family staples for years… and a great crockpot dish). Feeding a 6’4″ hubby and an ever-growing 19 year old is a real challenge.

    I’d like to contribute a super cheap lunch: Three packages of ramen noodles (10-15 cents per package) cooked with a bag of frozen mixed stir-fry veggies tossed in. Toss in any leftover meat you might have lurking in your fridge. Or scramble a few eggs and toss them in. Less than $3 and you can divide it into three or four decent servings.

  5. Cheap Eats Editor Says:

    jim – celery and bell pepper are great also!

    bradley – i made this in the dead heat of a summer day which was a mistake. yeah, probably a good dish for Fall instead!

    rosemary – yep!

    pdempsey – I think i made a mistake on the cheese. On the flip side, I didn’t actually use a cup of cheese – more like 1/2. I don’t mean the pricing to be taken literally. Its very difficult to approximate the recipe costs, because sometimes you only use 1/2, 1/4 or even 1/64 of a package of something (pricing 1 tbsp of olive oil is not very fun). So, it ends up some things are more expensive than what is listed and some things are cheaper. I find it averages out – so I don’t worry too much. Also, this casserole fed me for three meals – if we’re going to get exact then I guess for a meal it’s 1/3 of the cost. =)

  6. A Says:

    Awesome blog!

    Thank you for adding in the vegetarian comment, since I was thinking in my head, “Take out the $1 for meat and it’s definitely under $3.” But you already covered that.

    Can’t wait to sift through the archives and check it out – looks like a lot of fun!


  7. Jenna Says:

    Nifty blog, I’ll be bookmarking this and wandering back often… One quick tip for your recipe here.

    In a REAL hurry to get dinner on the table? Dry pasta in the baking dish, jar of sauce then add the same amount of water as sauce to the pan, give it a stir, add the rest of the ingredients as normal. The pasta cooks in the oven, no getting another pan dirty to boil it in first. (No dishwasher here, so I’m all about streamlining the cleanup!)

    Essentially you’re making your own cheap version of the 3.00 a jar “Baking Sauces”. Does the exact same thing, at a third of the price.

  8. Ernesto Says:

    Tried this recipe down here in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Indeed: three dollars and change. And it fed four people. Great blog, thanks!



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