Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Baked Ziti

It has been a season of rich, luscious celebratory foods-- timpanos, roasted suckling pig and peposo (a peppery Italian beef stew) have all made their way through the kitchen and onto my table in the past few weeks. It's been fun, but as in all things excessive, it's time to tamp it down a bit. Who has a schedule that allows the luxury of an entire day devoted to cooking?

That said, I still want something reminiscent of those full-on flavors, just a little lighter on the work-load. With that in mind, there's one dish that fulfills my requirements: a classic baked ziti.

This large casserole is essentially short tube pasta that's been mixed with sauce and cheese, then briefly baked. Variations abound, but I fell sway several years ago to a particular recipe from Fine Cooking magazine. After some tinkering, my husband and I feel that our version is pretty close to ziti perfection.

While he cooks the sausage with onions and garlic, I'm shredding copious amounts of pecorino cheese. I dice some tomatoes and hand them over: he plunks them down in the concentrated essence of red wine. There's just enough time left to slice the mozzarella and drain the pasta. All are gently mixed together, poured into a casserole, layered with more cheese, then placed into a fairly hot oven.

In about 15 minutes, you get the first real scent of sauce and cheese. A few minutes later, a distinctively garlicky, meaty aroma begins to fill the air. Five more minutes will see you peeking into the oven, where the casserole is lively and bubbling away. Let it go a bit longer, allowing some of the cheese-coated pasta to darken and turn crusty and crisp. While the casserole cools, those crunchy little nibs make for a very satisfactory chef's reward.

Notes: This makes for a pretty substantial meal, so I usually cook half right away, then wrap and freeze the rest for another night. Also, don't limit yourself to just the ingredients here. I've found that any manner of sauteed veggies work very well-- try mushrooms, zucchini or even eggplant. Additionally, you'll notice that the pasta pictured is actually penne: the bias cut affords more surface area to turn delightfully crunchy.

Baked Ziti with Tomato, Mozzarella & Sausage

olive oil
1 large onion, cut into small dice
4-5 cloves minced garlic
1 pound hot Italian sausage, casing removed, and crumbled
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry red wine
34-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, with their juice
2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano, or about 2 teaspoons dried
1/2-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 pound ziti (I use penne)
1 pound mozzarella, preferably fresh, cut into small cubes

Heat oven to 425-degrees, and bring a large pot of water to boil.
In a very large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and crumbled sausage, and saute until the sausage begins to brown. Season with salt and pepper.
If the sausage gives off a lot of fat, pour most off, but be sure to keep a bit for the flavour.
Add the red wine and let it boil until mostly gone. Add tomatoes, with juices, and cook, uncovered, at a lively simmer until sauce thickens slightly. Add oregano and red pepper as this cooks down.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together ricotta, about half or so the grated pecorino, the nutmeg and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain well and toss it with the ricotta mixture until well-coated. Add the sausage and sauce, and mix again. Add the mozzarella and toss gently.
Pour everything into the baking dish, and sprinkle the remaining pecorino on top.
Bake uncovered until golden and bubbling- I like to let some bits become magnificently darkened and crunchy. This will take maybe 20-30 minutes.
Let sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Serves 4-6.
recipe adapted from Fine Cooking magazine.

from The Daily Press


Blogger sher said...

I love baked ziti. I mean I really LOVE baked ziti! And that looks pretty darn good to me right now. I would love that for breakfast (since I haven't had any yet).

8:30 AM  

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