Friends, please welcome John to the blog. I couldn’t pass up the chance to post about his “famous” Baked Ziti, so I hope you enjoy it.
Hello there, Team SaltySassy! This is John, Michelle’s significant other. I’m adding to the blog today, since Baked Ziti is one of my signature dishes, and one she and our circle of friends like.
I tried baked ziti a few times growing up. I’ve always enjoyed Italian food, but many of the top dishes have something a bit off: Spaghetti and meat sauce is common, pizza is Americanized, lasagna is too often frozen, tiramisu is just someone spilling coffee on dessert. Ziti, however is like a casserole done RIGHT: loud and varied flavors, sticks to your ribs, and more personality than anything else that came out of a baking dish. And unlike other casseroles, it was unlikely to have the leftovers go bad from being ignored, principally because leftovers rarely survived.
As a single man, I honed Baked Ziti into one of the dishes in my starting rotation of frequently-prepared meals, mostly because I could make a huge batch and feed on it for a week (always a good thing for a bachelor). I eventually noticed that my mood for Ziti would coincide with a secret urge to eat ALL THE CHEESE. I adjusted my recipe further, and happiness ensued.
Upon meeting Michelle, I was humbled by her cooking skill (as you, dear reader, can imagine), and felt that my kitchen contributions wouldn’t measure up. This was disconcerting to me: the women of my past have uniformly been poor-to-mediocre cooks, and now one of my key skills was outdone. But I’m secure in my masculinity, and just bided my time until I would have a chance to cook something for her.
That first dish was the Ziti, to rave reviews.
Mostly, I prepare the ziti with shelf ingredients – jar of this, box of that, bag of some dairy – but when given enough warning of the arrival of friends and guests, I can gather the proper fresh and quality items and spend time prepping.
CONTRIBUTOR’S NOTE: We’re going to talk you through one pan’s worth, even though the accompanying pictures will show two being prepped. Yeah, fine, call us filthy lairs, if that’ll make you feel better.
FIRST THE SAUCE
Some go with a marinara. As for me, I find that an arrabiata goes better: The heat contrasts well with the cheese
Two regular cans of diced tomatoes are good for this – if you can get the basil and oregano seasoned ones, all the better. Put it in a saucepan.
Add to it: 1 tablespoon of dry oregano, dry basil, minced garlic and dried red pepper each, a 1/3 cup of olive oil and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (strong, I know, but will go great with the sausage), along with salt and pepper as you like; stir and low heat to a simmer for a few minutes.
While simmering, take a potato smasher and turn those diced tomatoes into crushed ones and keep stirring. The action of crushing the tomatoes as it heats really releases the flavor into the sauce, as well as allow the oil and spices to interact with the tomato pulp. Plus, it’s lots of fun to do.
Leave it simmer on that burner at low heat. You can now enjoy…
Three good Italian sausage links will do for a single pan. For this, we again raid Patrice’s Larder at Double R Farms in Asher (35 miles SE of Oklahoma City, or halfway between Shawnee and Ada, for those of you who live around these parts!)
These links (From Berkshire Hogs, I might add!) are lightly seasoned, but that’s actually perfect for this dish: the arrabiata will bring plenty of spice, and the links have a great pork flavor that won’t get all over the ziti pasta, but will enhance each bite.
Slice the casing open and crumble it out onto a skillet, and brown while the sauce simmers on the next burner. Keep browning, crumbling and turning. Then drain the fat – the sausage will bring enough meatiness.
During this process, set the oven to preheat at 375 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course; 375 Celsius would heat the entire home, and 375 Kelvin is barely enough to boil water), get a boiling pot, fill it up with water, and set it on course for a rolling boil. That’s right, now you get to
BOIL THAT PASTA
After you set the water bubbling, add a tablespoon or two of oil (good old veggie oil will work) and a pinch of basil and/or parsley. Send those tremendous tubes of Tuscan taste into the bath. Calgon, take me away!
Admittedly, I rarely never make my own pasta, but a recent trip to Pittsburgh to see Michelle’s family went through a charming Italian grocery, where I found this imported gem:
Like a trick football play or a pair of loaded dice, I was saving it for the right time. Now, I had all the proper premium ingredients, the friends were here, and the planets aligned. In it goes, for 11-14 minutes – keep an eye on it and stir; don’t let it stick to the bottom of the pot.
Whilst it boils, keep top eye on the sauce (should be a the lowest possible simmer) and take a pound of fresh mozzarella: the soft, moist kind that comes in a big ball or small log. Slice if needed into medallions.
Keep checking the pot, and lay about 9-15 medallions (depending on size) on the bottom of the baking dish – these will melt and form a wonderful cheesy base and keep the pasta and sauce above from drying out.
MIX IT RIGHT
Once the pasta is done, strain and dump (while hot) into a large mixing bowl. Add in the sausage, sauce and a few handfuls of shredded mozzarella, then mix it all together (hence the term “mixing bowl). Then pour into the baking pan. Oddly enough, I’ve found that there is always a couple of bites’ worth of ziti and sauce that won’t fit into the pan, forcing me to have some before dinner. Strange, I know.
Then place the rest of the fresh mozzarella medallions on top of the ziti/sauce/sausage mixture. If there are gaps present, fill in with shredded mozzarella – remember, this is when we feel like eating ALL THE CHEESE.
The oven should be warm by now, so throw it in! This should take 45 minutes. With this spare time, you can clean the mess you’ve made in the kitchen. As for me, I’ll find a sucker to do that while I watch the second half of a soccer game.
After 20 minutes, check on the progress every 5 minutes; if you’re watching the aforementioned soccer game, this will cause a goal to be scored when you go to the kitchen. When you check the pan, you want the medallions to melt, the sauce to lightly bubble, and, finally, the cheese to lightly brown in a few places. When this occurs, take it out and let it rest – 10 to 20 minutes will work.
ON THE SIDE
Some like garlic bread, but there’s enough starch in the ziti. I’d recommend a green salad or some spinach. For wine, I’d recommend a Pinot Noir – goes good with the sausage and cheese.
And that, dear reader, is my Baked Ziti. Olive Garden ain’t got $#!+ on me.
(Paper plates and a simple salad are a great way to feed a crowd with this recipe. It’s also wonderful for potlucks — just ask the host if you can bake it in their oven for the 30-45 minutes when you arrive if you want it hot and bubbly)