By Leslie Kelly
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Many years ago, a friend had a baby, and because the memories of those early sleep-deprived days of parenthood were fresh for me, I made dinner for her family. No big deal. Well, that little girl is now a college freshman, but I'm still making that smoked salmon pasta casserole for new parents and also, sometimes, as a "it's Tuesday" surprise for time-crunched friends and family. It has kind of turned into one of my signature dishes, a super easy recipe that I call my Random Acts of Kindness Casserole.

This casserole is easy to make and take to new parents or sick friends. Photo by Angie Ma

Like many casseroles, this one was created based on what was in the pantry and the fridge at the time. Which could be considered lazy, or the precursor to my favorite cooking challenge show, Chopped. (Bet you didn't know that host Ted Allen went to journalism school and once applied to work at the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer! Bet he's glad he didn't get that job!) The smoked salmon star of this casserole was extra special because it came from a friend who was genius at smoking fish, a skill I've yet to master. (Mine's always too dry.) While it was tempting to take this pasta preparation in a mac-n-cheesy direction, I kept it "light" by finishing it in cream. Just cream. Frozen peas give the dish a bright note and some visual pop.

Photo by Leslie Kelly

Four ingredients, cooked and mixed in one pot and dinner is served. It tastes fancy, but it's definitely not and that's the way I delivered it to my grateful buddies and their newborn babies for years. Recently, though, I decided to give this dish an easy upgrade, turning it into more of a casserole by topping it with a version of gremolata. That's the lemon zest and parsley combo used to top Italian classics like Osso Buco. My gremolata topping is beefed up with breadcrumbs and lemon juice and a little olive oil. It turns a little crispy when baked, and the citrus brings out the sweetness of the smoked fish.

A few weeks ago, my neighbors had a little boy, and on a Sunday, I made a double batch of smoked salmon pasta. Because there's nothing I'd rather do on a Sunday than mess around in the kitchen. One casserole went to the new parents, the other to my friends who work and have a kindergartener. My reward came in the form of a text with a photo attached of 5-year-old Konrad in front of a nearly empty bowl of that casserole.

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