italian casserole: baked zucchini, brown rice and tomato sauce with sausage

PHOEBE WASN’T EXACTLY PLEASED. Suddenly my four-year-old is opposed to everything being combined into a one-pot dinner. “Only one thing?”, she asks as incredulously as only a preschooler can. And to that I say (at least in my head), “When you start doing the dishes my dear, we can use all the pans for every meal. Until then, everyone who wears fairy wings will eat whatever makes the least amount of work for Mom!” And with that, I am quite pleased to present a dish that worked overtime: This dinner includes fresh veggies, brown rice and half the marinara sauce I used earlier in the week with penne pasta (which then became baby George’s lunch for 3 days). Ta-da!

My husband is working late a lot these days and that’s not even the tricky part. I’ve noticed that having three small children means having three opportunities to be woken up during the night, sometimes one after the other. I don’t have a newborn but somehow still haven’t had a full night of sleep in several weeks. People have been sick, people have been traveling, people are in the midst of moving. This means I am even sleepier than usual. So I need dinner to do some of the work.

In an effort to make things run a little more smoothly, I actually started planning ahead.

At least a little.

Estelle loves zucchini. That was my starting point. I love riffing on a family favorite and since this baked zucchini dish is a surefire hit with her, I adapted it. Earlier in the week I’d browned some sweet Italian sausage and combined it with plain ol’ pasta sauce from Kroger (I love the Simply Organic stuff). I saved half of it, actually stored it in the same sauce jar and put the whole thing right back in the fridge.

Because I’m making a bunch of baby food for George, who just turned one, I often make a pot of brown rice (or quinoa or millet or any other grain I have handy) to use for the week. But it’s also a good move for any busy mom who needs something to fill out weeknight dinners in a hurry. I’ve started using chicken stock instead of water and the flavor difference is definitely worth it.

So I simply made layers: 1. strips of zucchini (cut into thin ribbons with my vegetable peeler) 2. rice sprinkled with garlic powder and dried oregano 3. a handful of shredded mozzarella cheese 4. a ladle of marinara sauce with sausage. I grated Parmesan cheese on top, a little salt, pepper, more oregano and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil (Made by our friends at their family’s villa outside of Rome! How’s that for extremely indulgent? We are amazingly lucky to have that connection but their olive oil, Osco, is actually for sale in the US now. I don’t get a cut of the proceeds, only bragging rights for introducing you to the best oil I’ve ever tasted.)

Since I know that Miss P is really into having a few things on her plate these days, I’ll just cancel the debate before it starts by giving her a few slices of cucumbers, a couple cubes of cheese or a handful of crunchy red peppers in slices. Someday she’ll see the method but for now I’d just like to avoid the madness.

5.0 from 2 reviews
italian summer casserole: baked zucchini, brown rice and tomato sauce with sausage
Use half of your sausage and sauce mixture for another dinner this week. Stuffed peppers? Pasta? Up to you!
  • ¾ pound sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 jar of your favorite pasta sauce
  • 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 2 medium zucchini, cut into long thin strips (with a knife, mandolin or vegetable peeler)
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1- 1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 400.
  2. In a large skillet, brown sausage and add sauce. Set aside half for another dinner another night. Use the remaining sauce with sausage and cooked rice for the recipe below.
  3. In a 9x9 glass pan, add a small dollop of tomato sauce to the bottom of the pan, just to prevent sticking. Layer zucchini, completely covering the bottom of the pan. If your ribbons are very thin, add two layers of zucchini. Top with rice then sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Sprinkle a handful of mozzarella cheese on top then add enough red sauce to cover the whole thing. Repeat until you've used everything, probably 3-4 layers total. Sprinkle the top layer with the Parmesan cheese, a bit of salt and pepper plus oregano. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
  4. Remove foil and bake for 15-20 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.



    • charityc says

      Hi Loretta and welcome! So happy to hear from you and hope you and the kids all enjoy this dish. It works with so many things, quinoa, rice, I’ve even used uncooked old-fashioned oats as a filler, just something to soak up the juices so everything isn’t too runny. Enjoy!

  1. Lori says

    I made this tonight, but thought Chris wouldn’t be excited about it (my husband can be more difficult to cook for than my toddlers!), so I served it to him as a side dish, with a steak as his main dish, and a side of garlic bread for all. Levi woofed it down (as he does most anything) and Caleb declared ”I don’t like it” but managed a few forced bites. Chris, on the other hand, said the steak was dry but he loved the zucchini dish! Go figure!! I actually used the remaining sauce to make a second pan to put in the freezer for a quick dinner after work next week. Thanks for this recipe! We loved it!!

    • charityc says

      Ha, I love it! Actually I love a couple things about this dish — the dual purpose sauce and also the chance to dress up a veggie like zucchini in a different way than the usual (steamed, ho-hum…) Let us know if Caleb likes it better the second time around. And I hear you on the husband point! Too bad they don’t have a sticker reward system for dads. :)

  2. Lori says

    Ok, round two… I gave my freezer meal to a friend who is gluten-free. Her husband has been in and out of the hospital for the last few months, so I gave her the frozen dish for a quick and easy family dinner. I baked with the foil, then froze and instructed her to bake another 15 mins without foil. She picked her husband up from the hospital, made this dinner and told me it was ‘the best meal she’s ever had’. I do like that this dinner is spicey (I use hot sausage), filled with veggies, and in my friend’s case, gluten free! Easy and healthy, thanks, Charity!! This one will stay in my regular recipe routine!

    • charityc says

      Lori, I had to hold my breath reading this! I was so worried that it wouldn’t turn out, especially when the stakes were so high! And also, YAY!!! I’m so happy it did and that you took the time to tell us about it. Maybe one more time…yay!

      • Wendy says

        Charity….I made this tonight with mushrooms added, and a quinoa/brown rice mix. So delicious!!!!! I used all the sauce though. Much like a lasagna with no pasta ๐Ÿ˜‰ thanks for sharing!!!!

        • charityc says

          Awesome, Wendy! Was it the quinoa/brown rice mix from Costco? We love those! And the mushrooms sound really good. I’m trying something like this with chicken, mushrooms and summer squash next. No tomato sauce, more of a casserole that Paul’s mom makes and Phoebe says is her favorite food ever. We’ll see…

          • Wendy says

            Yes it was the Seeds of Change organic quinoa brown rice packets. It cuts prep time in half for sure ๐Ÿ˜‰ turned out so yummy. All 3 kiddos ate it with very few reservations (grace always questions our meals….always!). All in all, I think it was a hit. Going to make it again for certain!!!

  3. Colleen says

    I tried this tonight and it was a huge hit. It’s the first time in as long as I can remember that everyone ate the dish as I prepared it without whining or picking out the green stuff. The only change I made was white rice for brown since we’re out of brown rice. I am putting this in the regular rotation. Thanks!

    • charityc says

      Colleen, that’s so great to hear–and my favorite outcome as too. There’s another favorite baked rice dish around here, baked risotto, using bacon & peas or spinach but it does need arborio rice or the cooking time will take much longer (as I recently re-learned the hard way.) Your crew may enjoy it as well. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • charityc says

      Hi Angela! Just a regular sized jar, which are usually about 24 ounces (680 grams). This is one of our favorite dishes, so I hope your family enjoys too.

  4. Lori says

    Do you know why I love this recipe? I’ll tell you:
    1. It’s delicious
    2. I can prep it and bake with foil on, then store it. Maybe just for that nights dinner, maybe put it in the freezer for later
    3. I can make it for friends with gluten intolerance
    4. Today I cooked up 3lbs of sausage in the morning, put a bit aside to scramble with eggs, and used the rest to make three zucchini dishes. One was delivered to a friend who welcomed her second baby. One went in the freezer for next week’s company. One went in the fridge, then was cooked up for tonight’s dinner. All that and MINIMAL clean up.

    Now here’s a happy cook :). Thank you!!

  5. Jill Kitchen says

    Finally made this last night. Thanks so much for the recipe, Charity! My husband and I loved it. My toddler enjoyed it until he realized it was a vegetable (took him a couple of minutes, though!). Love things like this that can last a couple of dinners (doubled it so we’re having it tonight as well), and aren’t just meat and potatoes/meat and pasta.

  6. Laura says

    If I were going to do this as a freezer meal, what would I do before freezing? Would I mix everything together and freeze or bake it for 30 minutes covered first. What would instructions be then to cook from frozen? Would oven temperature or times change? Thanks!

    • charityc says

      Hi Laura! Great questions. I’ll add this to the post above as well.

      Put the whole casserole together in a baking pan (you might even use a “disposable” tin pan (I reuse mine!) if you’ll need your regular glass or metal pan soon). No need to bake it first. Just throw in the freezer. I’d wrap it with plastic wrap, then foil for maximum freshness. When you’re ready to bake, try to put the casserole in the fridge overnight so it start thawing. (Giving it up to a couple of days in the fridge would work too.)

      Then set the pan on the counter while your oven preheats. You want to keep trying to get the temperature up so the whole thing will cook evenly.

      If the casserole is thawed out: Bake it at the regular temperature: 400 degrees, F. Take the plastic wrap off (if using) but leave the foil on. Follow the regular instructions: Bake for about 30 minutes with foil on, plus another 15-20 minutes with foil off.

      If it’s still pretty frozen: Bake at 350 for 45 minutes with foil on, plus another 15-20 minutes with foil off.

      Let us know how it turns out!

      • Laura says

        Thanks so much! I am trying to prep some meals for when my in laws visit so all I have to do is pull them out of the freezer! I can’t wait to try it!


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