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A good quality gooey cheese is all you need to make a luscious sauce for this easy, family-friendly vegetable pasta bake.This post is part of a blog collaboration on healthy comfort foods and recipes, as well as thoughts on comfort beyond the kitchen. Links to the other participants’ articles are below my recipe. 

Comfort food is always a buzzword in the cooler, darker months. Go to any restaurant and there will be a section marked ‘comfort foods’ to choose from: sticky ribs, meat pies with gravy, steamed puddings. And UK supermarkets probably get most of their money at this time of year from sales of such classic comfort foods as macaroni cheese, pizza, and mashed potatoes.

Genetically we are programmed to crave high-calorie, high-fat and high-carb foods when times get tough, our mood is low, or when natural light levels are waning. In Scotland light levels are exceptionally low during the winter months: yesterday, the 10th of January, the sun set in Edinburgh at 3.59pm. And it was raining.

Many of us grew up consuming foods like this – or whatever is our cultural equivalent – in times of personal need. Eating things like a baked chocolate pudding or pastry-wrapped anything does indeed help with the release of the soothing brain hormone, dopamine. But, as we have become more aware of the health disbenefits of having classic comfort foods as a mainstay of our diet – the latter possibly in response to chronic stress –  more of us are finding less comfort and more guilt. Or, if not guilt, then a nagging suspicion that the calories and fat from a triple decker cheese sandwich literally outweighs the comfort of that first, blissful bite.

st felicien cheeseAlthough in times of stress our body tells us we need that whole bag of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, this kind of self-medication only works for us in the short term: the stressy rush of cortisol is quelled by calming dopamine, but picks up again if the source of stress  (or lack of light – for light helps us with “happy hormone” production, too) is not addressed and dealt with.

The new and always improving information on the link between food, behaviour and health doesn’t have to mean the death of the doughnut, or put the kibosh on cake. But we need other strategies too; ones not always involving an overdose of calories.

Lately I have been addressing my stresses with more exercise. Despite having been a member at several in my lifetime, I have not always been a fan of gyms, thinking they are for posers and those with more money than sense. But recently I joined a new one near work and have found it to be just what I need. I’m glad I allowed myself to open my mind to a new way to get much needed physical activity back at the forefront of my life. After doing my programme (and free styling a bit too) I feel calmer and more mentally focussed. Although I didn’t join the gym to address stress, I have found how I feel after an hour and a bit’s workout is an added bonus that I look forward to as much as the physical benefits. I feel comfort from my new routine. And I sleep a bit better too, which also helps control stress and appetite hormones.

A good quality gooey cheese is all you need to make a luscious sauce for this easy, family-friendly vegetable pasta bake.Stress rather than mere taste is often the reason we reach for high-calorie foods, so finding a way to deal with it can help make eating chocolate covered macadamia nuts a mindful rather than stress-driven choice; a small handful rather than a big bagful. Yoga, taking a walk in an interesting area, meeting a friend for a coffee (and maybe splitting a piece of cake), taking up a new hobby or re-discovering an old one, reading a life-affirming book, having sex with a loving partner, writing up a positive plan to deal with a specific problem – these can all bring comfort. Some stresses we can’t completely control – horrible exes, lack of money to pay bills, long-standing mental and physical health issues – but learning more positive strategies to deal with stress than working our way through family bag of crisps has got to be a good thing.

A good quality gooey cheese is all you need to make a luscious sauce for this easy, family-friendly vegetable pasta bake.As for comfort food itself, I am finding that more and more I am less drawn to wanting a large portion of a high calorie option, and more to foods that have an element of classic comfort – a couple of squares of good chocolate curled up on the sofa with my cat; a bowl of sriracha-butter popcorn whilst watching a movie with my family; a touch of gooey cheese in a wholesome pasta dish eaten out of the pan with a big spoon. I find that by enhancing my environment (e.g. with candles, cut flowers in a jug, freshly washed sheets, snuggling with my family on the sofa) – or appreciating the best in any environment that I am in – ups the comfort quotient considerably.

The need for comfort food will always be with us, but the new thing we can add is to make it good for us, too. A comfort to the spirit, mind and body.

What is your favourite comfort food? What non-food comforting strategies do you have? 

A good quality gooey cheese is all you need to make a luscious sauce for this easy, family-friendly vegetable pasta bake.

Self-Saucing Cheese and Roasted Vegetable Pasta Bake

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Choose any gooey cheese that you like (the comfort element!), but be aware that if you are a vegetarian, many melty cheeses – especially French ones – may not be suitable, so check the label or the brand’s website.

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

200g mixed cherry tomatoes, washed and patted dry

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (divided use)

2 red chillies, sliced or whole (optional)

12 mini, mixed colour sweet peppers, halved and de-seeded or sliced into thick rings

1 tsp thyme leaves

Sage leaves. I used about 10 small leaves from my garden. This is about three supermarket ones. Tear these

150g rainbow chard, Swiss chard or other sturdy greens, washed and sliced into ribbons

200g favourite pasta shapes – I used wholegrain spelt pasta

180-200g soft, melting round of edible-rind cheese like Brie or Camembert – I used one from Saint Felicien

Lemon zest and a little of the juice of the lemon

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

2. Toss one tbsp of the oil with the tomatoes, peppers, most of the garlic, chilli and herbs.  Spread the vegetables in a smallish roasting tin, season with salt and pepper. Bake the vegetables for 30 minutes. Once cooked remove from the oven and turn on your oven’s grill.

3. Meanwhile cook the pasta until al dente, adding the greens (I used rainbow chard) for the last five minutes. Drain well, saving some of the starchy cooking water.

4. Add the pasta back to the roasting pan and mix in the roasted vegetables, the lemon juice and zest and top with the round of cheese. Pierce a few holes in the cheese and push in the remaining garlic; drizzle with the remaining oil, add in about 100ml of the cooking water, and scatter with any extra herbs. Place the tin under the grill – about 6 inches away – and cook until the cheese is bubbling and runny.

5. To serve, use a knife or fork to mix the cheese loosely into the pasta and vegetables. The water and cheese will form a sauce, with enticing molten bits of cheese to add nice flavour bombs. Eat with plenty of sharp, green salad dressed with a  simple vinaigrette.

Need some facts with your (comfort) food? Here is an interesting article from Psychology Today on Stress and Eating; a “Gain control of emotional eating” article from The Mayo Clinic; one from Dr Oz’s (not usually a fan) website by Dr Susan Albers on “Tips to stop emotional eating“.

As promised, here are the other collaborators in this comfort food and thought series:

Katie (collaboration initiator and coordinator) at Whole Nourishment with Cinnamon Hot Chocolate

Julia at Orchard Street Kitchen and her Thai Red Curry with Tofu

Sarah at Highgate Hill Kitchen with Vegetarian Pho

and another Sarah, at Sarah Bellum and MCT Hummus




47 thoughts on “Self-Saucing Cheese & Roasted Vegetable Pasta Bake – A Nourishing Comfort Food Recipe

  1. Thanks for sharing this lovely post!! I really enjoyed reading it and I am interested in learning more about this topic!! Luckily I am not that kind of person who needs “comfort food” – on one hand I am not a big fan of chocolate and all that sweets in general and on the other hand, I tend to eat less when I am stressed (what isn’t always a good thing either!) The recipe looks very delicious!!! Love, Isabelle

    1. I’m not a stress eater either, Isa. Quite the opposite. During times of especial stress i have no appetite, and food tends to taste and feel like cardboard. Which is terrible for a food lover like me! But I can eat more when I am bored, so I guess that’s a kind of comfort food response. Luckily I’m not often bored. Always something to do!

  2. Looks so delicious-
    too bad that no one in my family would it but me, I have to “hide” most veg from my children and husband!

    1. 🙁 I hope the kids grow out of it. Probably not much hope for your husband. 😉 Perhaps try this self-saucing pasta idea with vegetables they will eat, and add one that they don’t absolutely hate.

  3. What great thoughts on comfort food and how we can have that cake and eat it too. 😉 I especially like the idea of making comfort food a mindful rather than stress-driven choice. Thanks so much again Kellie for being part of this – I always enjoy collaborating with you!! 🙂

    1. I can’t believe I forgot to comment on the recipe. I love the self-saucing idea. Now this is a way to make easy work of a pasta meal. And all those roasted veggies look so good, especially with the lemon.

      1. Ha ha I didn’t even notice that as your comment was so lovely!

    2. Thanks Katie. I was happy to once again be asked to participate in your always-useful collaborations. Once I have more than 3 hours sleep in a night (serious jet lag is the bane of my travelling life…) I will check out the other posts in full!

  4. Sarah says:

    This pasta bake looks amazing – and kid-friendly too, which is always a plus for me these days! I’m so glad to discover your lovely blog Kellie, looking forward to exploring it.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. Katie is so good at organising useful collaborations. You’ve got a suburb site, and I hope those reading this post and this comment will go and see for themselves. 🙂

  5. I LOVE the idea of a self-saucing casserole – let the flavours of the roasted veggies speak for themselves 🙂 And you know I’m going to like anything that’s topped with a round of camembert… 😉

    1. I am speaking your language today! Thanks for the great comment, Becca. 🙂

  6. Susan says:

    Beautiful as usual! My #1 comfort food is my vegan fudge….but I can’t make it to often or I get WAY too comfortable!

    1. You’re too funny! I can’t imagine you over-indulging, but I guess if it’s vegan fudge there could be much worse ways to over-indulge – plenty of temptation in the peach tree state… I still read Southern Living sometimes. And Gun and Garden too (not for the meaty stuff, obvs)! Great restaurants in your neck of the woods. 🙂

  7. Your honesty is refreshing! We all enjoy comfort food and it certainly can be too much of a good thing. Portion control and moderation work well for me. This vegetable pasta is so inviting, just irresistible!

    1. Me too – mostly! I also try not to get too hungry because then all bets are off. Staying off the wine also helps. Out of sight, out of mind. 🙂

  8. Wow, I wish I had the energy for an hour’s workout… that said, I can happily cycle for an hour by the duckponds… if it is not too hot. Lovely recipe. xx

    1. Don’t be too impressed, Liz. It’s nothing too awful, and I avoid or minimise stuff I don’t like. Rowing is the pits so only five minutes at a time of that before I want to chew my arms off! Cycling by a duck pond sounds ideal to me! And because it is something enjoyable and outdoors of course you are happy to do it once you are out there.

  9. I had so much fun reading this post, Kellie! I especially love what you said about taking an element of that classic comfort we crave. Otherwise we’re denying ourselves, which as we know never leads to anything good! This pasta bake looks absolutely delicious. Loads of beautiful, colorful veggies paired with a bit of gooey cheese – what a perfect balance!

    1. Thank you so much, Julia. As someone on the wrong side of 50 I am so over denial and excluding what I love. Boring old balance works for me. SO ahhpy to have virtually met you through Katie. I am stumbling along on 3 hour’s sleep just now (horrid jet lag) so I will come over tomorrow after work to check out your post. 🙂

  10. Lots of lovely goodness and flavour 😉
    Good to hear you are enjoying the gym and exercise, it’s so good for your brain as well as your body. I exercise daily, whether it’s walking or running or spinning, because I know how happy it makes me – I literally smile as I work out and that stays with me all day! And I realised as I read your post, that I never really feel the need for comfort food any more, which I think reflects on how good life is around me xx

    1. Preach! Totally agree with you, Elaine. I have always tried to be active, but not always in a formal way. I move around lot (way over 10k steps) but I finally have gotten to the place where I am at peace with the fact that as one gets older it is more important than ever to keep moving, keep supple and be strong. These old bones won’t help me unless I support them! As for comfort, I don’t really have comfort food as such (like you, no need) but I do admit to a certain “to hell with it” attitude if I am bored or had a glass or two of wine. Luckily I don’t often get bored these days. And it looks like you don’t either. Your dog Bob won’t let you!

      1. No, not much opportunity to get bored here 🙂
        I love the fact that I don’t sit still very much and that I feel strong and fit, I feel and hope that I am creating good building blocks as I get older – I hope you continue to enjoy working out xx

  11. wheelie38 says:

    This is a great recipe and even better because it’s self saucing. I’ve shared on Facebook – Happy New Year 😀

    1. Thanks so much, Richard. Let me know if you try it, or a version of it? Cheers for taking the time to comment AND share. Much appreciated. 🙂

  12. You write such inspiring posts Kellie, your enlightening words, colourful photographs and nourishing recipes always lift my spirits. I love how you make healthy food so appealing and point out how we can all improve our diets without making us feel guilty! I’m trying bit by bit to change my habits and reading your blog regularly is definitely helping…

    1. You are very kind, Katie. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for nearly 30 years, and it is great to have a more public outlet for what I love so much. It makes me happy that you appreciate my little snippet of the blogosphere. 🙂

  13. superfitbabe says:

    Anything high in carbs, sugar, fats and calories were once beneficial for our survival when we were still grazing around and running around in the wild for our food! But now that we work office jobs, school desk jobs and sedentary lifestyles with easily accessible food, our cravings still haven’t gone away! It’s important that we nourish our bodies but not with anything processed and low in nutrients. This pasta looks so gooey and warm and delicious!

    1. I am glad we don’t have to run around killing our food, but what I wouldn’t give for the metabolism of our ancestors! AS for the recipe, a little of what you/we/I fancy in the form of a bit of cheese rather than a full-on cheese, butter, milk sauce is my concession to comfort, but also a clear nod to health. I hope! Others might disagree. 😉 Thanks for your lovely and considered comment, Cassie. 🙂

  14. I am really finding my appetite has increased since the cold weather appeared a few days ago and it’s carbs that I find most satisfying. I’m trying not to turn to chocolate! I love the look of this self saucing pasta dish and that melty gooey cheese is calling me. How delicious and with all those colourful veggies surely this actually is the perfect winter comfort dish!

    1. Aw thanks, lovely Laura. You are making me smile. I haven’t had much sleep at all lately so carbs are calling, when normally I am very much a protein fiend. `Pasta for lunch is not my norm, but today it just had to happen. With a whole pan of roasted flower sprouts to “cancel out” the carbs, ha ha.

  15. this looks utterly divine… baking cheese is now my go-to way of eating cheese. I wish I was ‘self-saucing’!!

    1. I love your comment, Dom! I now have a mental image of you in a bathtub of cheese sauce. You are clothed btw, so tell The Viking not to worry. 😉

  16. Emily says:

    Wow this looks delicious, I will be bookmarking this to cook and enjoy later! 🙂

  17. Now this is my kind of comfort food! I just love that it is self saucing too.
    I am all about the healthy comfort food too, but I am also trying to make the effort to comfort myself with exercise rather than food.

  18. Nice colourful recipe! As always your photos are fab! We always have pasta in our household, so warming and comforting. Love your recipe here.

  19. The Free From Fairy says:

    What a fabulous recipe and a wonderful blog post too! I hate January and am not great at getting through it with a smile on my face! Since I am on a diet to try and control my IBS comfort food is not really allowed so other strategies are required. I love your suggestions!

  20. I love what you write about “enhancing your environment*-so key to enjoying a meal or a snack, without feeling the need to overindulge 🙂 Any type of pasta dish is definitely on my comfort food list. And, non-food comfort is a hot bubble bath, a cup of tea-a constant when I am working in my office, snuggling with my family in a blanket by the fire, or lounging outside in the sun (properly sunscreened) with a good book or magazine. Dark at 3:59? Ugg…..

  21. Can only agree with using mindfulness in this way. Being more aware of what we are choosing to eat and why allows us to make choices which comfort and soothe, meeting our real needs, but without over doing any of it. Taking the time to slow down and bit and enjoy the surroundings….perhaps smelling the roses….is a great antidote to stress in my experience ✨💕✨ another lovely post Kellie

  22. Farm Graze says:

    Sounds and looks yummy. and great insight in the comfort/non’comfort food cravings. Living in Vermont, I can completely relate to the affects of the dark winter months and carb cravings.

  23. stateeats says:

    Hi Kellie – very sensible advice. All thing in moderation, right?? – Kat

  24. all of my favourite ingredients in bake…Delish 🙂

  25. This sounds really good. We’ll be trying this in the next few days.

    1. Lovely to hear from you, Sandy. Thanks so much for stopping by. 🙂

  26. chefceaser says:

    Reblogged this on Chef Ceaser.

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