I was confronted during the first week of the year with having to use up the last of our Christmas ham (as well as a whole lot of other leftovers from the holidays). There wasn’t much ham left on the bone and I didn’t have enough of anything else on hand to make soup, but what I eventually realized is that I did have almost everything on hand to make one of our favorite leftover ham dishes, pasta tossed with spinach, red pepper, and diced ham and coated in creamy cheese. It’s one of the simplest and easiest recipes in my repertoire, and always a crowd pleaser.
The only thing I was lacking this time was the spinach, but Brett and I included a bag of baby spinach one my first of the month Trader Joe’s list. That evening, I diced the remaining ham (and put the bone in the freezer for a later pot of soup), julienned a red pepper that had been hanging out in the produce drawer, cooked a remaining half bag of pasta I had in the pantry, and finally tossed the finished product with some leftover spreadable sharp cheddar cheese. With the addition of some freshly cracked pepper, the result was a fabulous meal that got only a couple of dishes dirty and provided leftovers for the next two days’ lunches.
The beauty of this dish is that it can be made from whatever someone desires or already has on hand. I rarely, if ever, see it any more, but my favorite spreadable cheese for this dish has always been sun-dried tomato, but any soft cheese spread – garlic with herbs, for example – works fine. Any type of pasta is fine as well, although the original recipe called for farfalle (bow ties). The pepper doesn’t have to be red, and spinach can be replaced with kale, arugula, or other greens. Ham provides a smoky flavor, but there’s no reason bacon, chicken, beef, or even salmon couldn’t be used.
Below is the basic recipe – variations are up to the cook and what’s on hand!
CHEESY PASTA WITH HAM, SPINACH, AND RED PEPPER
- 5-ounce bag baby spinach
- 1 large red pepper
- 1 1/2 cups diced ham
- 12 ounces dried pasta. Ones created to catch the sauce are preferred over long noodles, but they can work too
- 8-12 ounces soft cheese spread
In a large stockpot, bring water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Don’t skimp on the water – the pasta water is what will “cook” the spinach and pepper.
Wash the spinach and leave in a colander. Julienne the red pepper into very thin strips and lay on top of the spinach.
When the pasta is ready, slowly pour the pasta water over the spinach and peppers, ending with the pasta sitting on the top. Let it sit for a minute or so, then transfer the pasta, spinach, and pepper back into the stockpot. Using tongs, pull apart the clumps of spinach and mix throughout the pasta along with the pepper strips, which should be tender crisp and not soggy.
When the spinach is mixed through the pasta, add the diced ham to the stockpot and mix it through the pasta.
Finally, add the spreadable cheese to the pasta. The heat from the pasta will soften it to coat the pasta as it is mixed. Gently stir until all the pasta and vegetables are coated.
Serve immediately with cracked pepper.