Cold Weather Baked Ziti
With this weekend’s predicted lows in the 30s, we have a really great excuse to make a giant baked ziti that has nothing to do with our New Year’s resolutions. It is cold, and we need to warm up. With carbs.
My first taste of baked ziti was still the best one. My Uncle Joe, a short and stocky white-haired man with round glasses and a bushy white mustache to match, was Italian all the way. He married my Aunt Eleanor before I was born, and the two would come down from New Jersey or Florida to visit us for a couple of weeks every year, for as long as I can remember. We loved walking on the beach with Uncle Joe and playing in the pool, but what we really loved was his crazy good Italian cooking. He would take over our kitchen once a year, chopping garlic and simmering sauces literally all day long. His cooking was famous – my parents would have an annual dinner party for the lucky friends who got to experience his classic Northern Italian masterpieces…like baked ziti.
I can’t replicate Uncle Joe’s baked ziti – maybe that’s just because the memory is too perfect. But I’ve played with my own recipe long enough that I have something that at least touches on the memory, something that is without a doubt good enough. It’s cheesy and saucy and perfect for a weekend like this one’s going to be. New Year’s resolutions – we’ll see you again next week. Maybe.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 pounds ground beef
1 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
1 large onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon dried basil
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes
¼ cup fresh basil, leaves torn
1 pound ziti
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed
8 ounces grated mozzarella
¾ cup grated Parmesan
Heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the ground beef and sausage, breaking up with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté until the meat is no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, red pepper, dried basil, bay leaves, salt and pepper, and sauté until the vegetables are soft, another 10 minutes or so. Add the tomato paste, and stir to combine. Add the tomatoes with their juice, breaking them up with your hands as you add them. Season with a little more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 2 hours (or more), partially covered, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9” x 13” baking dish with nonstick spray. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, until it is al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain the pasta, dry it off a little with a paper towel, and mix it into the sauce. Stir in the fresh mozzarella. Season with salt and pepper – taste it here to be sure it is seasoned to your taste. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan, and sprinkle the grated mozzarella and Parmesan over the top. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling around the edges, about 20 minutes. Turn on the broiler, and broil for 3 to 4 minutes, until the top of the cheese begins to brown. Remove from the oven, and let the baked ziti sit for about 10 minutes before serving.
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