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COOKING LOCAL Deluxe Baked Ziti

January 13, 2012

    Welcome back to the

kitchen. Winter really is a great season for cooking. Sure, the back porch barbecues of summer are glorious. But

there is something so perfect about coming in to a hot cauldron of soup or a bubbling casserole after braving

snow, ice, and frigid winds.
    Perhaps it is partially the enjoyment of giving in to

comfort food cravings that tell us to eat heavily and pack it on like a bear in case we need to hibernate for the

rest of winter.
    Now, I’m no advocate for throwing in the towel on healthy eating.

In fact I think we can do a lot to improve our winter blues by eating fresh foods and staying active. But that

being said, there are just some perfect times and places for comfort food.
    I’m the

sort of person who will get a dish stuck in my head. Sometimes inspiration strikes at an odd moment, like in the

shower or drifting off to sleep. Today’s recipe came to me as I drove down from a long day of skiing, tired,

cold, and very hungry.
    After I’d stripped off my ice encrusted gear, the food I

wanted more than anything was some hot and hearty baked ziti. This is not a particularly classy or complicated

dish, nor is it exotic. But in that moment I just wanted to get back to the basics, at least as much as I ever do

in the kitchen.
    Baked ziti is really easy and very forgiving. You won’t really need

all that much of a specific recipe. But I definitely wanted to more than just a bottled sauce and a mess of

cheese. I wanted to add some ground beef and pork sausage, but also squeeze in as many vegetables as I could. I

just love vegetables, even in my comfort food.
    So I sautéed a quick home made

sauce first, packed with garlic, mushrooms, and zucchini. I tossed that with cooked pasta and layered it in a pan

with some ricotta, and topped with parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.
    This dish is great

because I find it every bit as satisfying as lasagna, but you don’t have to bother with all the layers. This

one is ore free form and free wheeling, but the flavors are basically the same. I guess I’d call this

weeknight lasagna.
    Some of the recipes I came across called for copious amounts of

ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, which of course add quite a lot of fat to this dish. I found that I could cut down

on the cheeses without losing the integrity of the dish. Of course, lots of veggies make this a healthier dish.

And I opted for the leanest beef and poured the fat off the pork sausage. You could use buffalo or turkey meat for

even less fat, or of course leave the meat out entirely.
    But that is the basic idea for

this week: a big pan of hearty beef and sausage baked ziti with lots of yummy vegetables. So let’s get

started!

 

    For this Deluxe Baked Ziti we’ll

need:

 

    -1 box (16 ounces) ziti or penne pasta

/>    -2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
    -2 pasilla (mildly spicy)

peppers, seeded and chopped
    -plus/or 1 green bell pepper (optional), also chopped

/>    -2 medium carrots, chopped small (carrots are optional, but I like the sweetness they add)

/>    -2 ribs of celery, chopped
    -about 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced

/>    -2 medium small zuchinnis, sliced into ½ inch thick half moons
   

-a few big handfuls of fresh spinach
    -about ¾ pound extra lean ground beef

/>    -about ¾ pound loose Italian pork sausage
    -about 2 tablespoons

olive oil
    -1 large can crushed tomatoes
    -1 can tomato paste

/>    -1 cup red wine (optional)
    -about 5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

fine
    -plenty of dried oregano, basil, and thyme (Italian seasonings), at least 1 heaping

tablespoon
    -salt and pepper to taste
    -1 15 ounce container ricotta

cheese
    -1-2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (depending on how light you are trying to make

the dish)
    -about ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
    -1/2 cup

chopped fresh parsley (optional), for garnish

    So there we have all the

makings for this super deluxe baked ziti. Let’s start by cooking up that delicious sauce. You’ll want

to use a large enough pot so you can stir the pasta in with the sauce later on. I made the mistake of using a

regular skillet and had a heck of a time not spilling the sauce everywhere when I stirred it.

/>    Heat up the olive oil on a medium high heat, then add the chopped onions first, letting them

sauté for a couple minutes before you add more veggies. Add the carrots and turn the heat down to medium,

stirring occasionally. Next add the celery, peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. I really like to use pasilla peppers

here, because they are really cheap and add a nice bit of spicy heat without being overbearing. But I leave the

choice of peppers up to you. Saute the vegetables for about 5 minutes or so, stirring, until they begin to soften.

    Next add the hamburger and Italian sausage. If you are using Italian sausage links,

remove the casings and break them into chunks. Stir the meat, breaking into meatball sized chunks. Don’t

worry about mixing it in all the way; I like to have some larger meat chunks left in the sauce. Toss in the

chopped garlic and the oregano, basil, and thyme. If you have fresh basil, that would of course be awesome in here

too.
    Continue cooking and stirring until the meat is browned and cooked all the way

through, which should take about 5 minutes or so. You can pour off excess fat at this point if you wish. Open up

the big can of crushed tomatoes and the tomato paste, and stir these in to the pot. Swish the cup of wine around

in the cans to get all the tomatoeyness in there. Pour the wine into the sauce.
    Once your

sauce starts to bubble and simmer, you can turn it down to medium low so it can simmer nice and low for at least

20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Longer, lower cooking time will yield even better flavors. If your sauce

ends up super thick, you may need to add a little bit of water to thin it out. But we do want it to be pretty

thick and hearty. Also, add salt and pepper to taste at this point.

    While the meat

and veggie sauce is simmering, let’s boil a big pot of water for our pasta. One trick to making good pasta

is to use a really big pot. If you try and cook pasta in a small pot using not enough water, it will often end up

quite sticky and gummy. Also, because we are going to bake this pasta, we really want it to be al dente, and not

cooked soft all the way through. So shave a minute or two off the package’s recommended cooking time.

/>    When the ziti or penne is edible but not cooked quite all the way through, drain off the

water. Now would be a good time to preheat the oven to 350 degrees. You’ll need a nice deep baking pan. I

think mine is like 9/12, but I’m not sure. Just use whatever deep baking pan you’ve got on hand. I

highly recommend you line it with foil so cleaning the pan afterwards won’t be a Herculean task.

/>    Start by layering in some of the sauce, especially some of the liquid. This will help prevent

the noodles from sticking. Next, spoon in some small blobs of the ricotta cheese, like ½ teaspoon or so,

evenly spread across the pan. Next mix the drained pasta with the rest of the sauce, and also toss in several

handfuls of fresh spinach, which will wilt nicely in the hot sauce. Stir until the ziti is well coated.

/>    Dump the pasta and chunky sauce over the ricotta layer and smooth it out until it is roughly

even. Hopefully you’ve still got some room in the pan, because now we’re going to layer on another

round of those little blobs of ricotta cheese. I ended up using my fingers, because the ricotta is dry enough and

the spoon was just getting in the way.
    Finish off the dish by sprinkling on the grated

parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. I actually hit the parmesan in the middle layer, but either way is fine. If your

pan is close to overflowing, you may want to put it on a larger baking sheet to catch any bubbling drips. Bake in

the oven on the middle rack until the cheese is melted and the top is nicely browned. Because all the ingredients

are already cooked, it won’t take long to finish in the oven. I’d bake it for about 20 minutes or

so.
    When it is all nicely melty and browned, pull your baked ziti masterpiece out to cool.

Sprinkle on the chopped parsley garnish if you wish, it will add a nice fresh note. You will find it much easier

to slice and serve once the pasta has cooled and coalesced a bit. And there you have, a veggie and meat filled

masterpiece of comforting Italian American food. Serve this with some garlic bread and a salad and we are in

business!
    And thankfully, this baked ziti makes great leftovers and freezes well, because

we made a lot! This is a very filling and satisfying dish to come home to on a cold winter’s day. And once

you get the hang of it you can certainly have it out on the table in about an hour.
    The

creamy ricotta and chewy mozzarella play oh no nicely with the meaty, slightly spicy, veggie and wine flavored

sauce. And feel free to play around with the ingredients here. Fit in as many veggies as you can! Some Jerusalem

artichoke might be really nice here, or even some sweet potatoes if you are feeling crazy.

/>    Whatever you do, I challenge you to go beyond just opening up all premade cans. That

isn’t really cooking. By using a bunch of fresh ingredients, this dish becomes a winner.

/>    I’d love to hear what you’ve been cooking to beat back the winter blues. Send me

any questions, comments or suggestions to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac

Kaplan-Woolner.