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.
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
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
For this Deluxe Baked Ziti we’ll
-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
-1 large can crushed tomatoes
-1 can tomato paste
/> -1 cup red wine (optional)
-about 5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
-plenty of dried oregano, basil, and thyme (Italian seasonings), at least 1 heaping
-salt and pepper to taste
-1 15 ounce container ricotta
-1-2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (depending on how light you are trying to make
-about ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
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
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.
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
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
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.
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