Today is Ash Wednesday and marks the start of Lent. During Lent, Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays in between. Tory & I are planning to post a meat-free meal starting today and continuing every Friday through Easter. Since Lent is a time of [among other things] self-denial, I feel just a tiny bit guilty posting this as my first Lenten recipe.
Baked Ziti is one of my favorite meals; I think because of the fresh mozzarella cheese that I put on top. I started making this recipe in college when we couldn’t afford fresh mozzarella and we both loved it but once we tried the real stuff, it took the dish completely over the top.
I made this recipe for my friends Jenny and Aaron when we spent the weekend with them in North Carolina and I know Jenny has been waiting for the step-by-step recipe ever since. The recipe is based on a one of Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals which means is quick and perfect for a weeknight.
Here’s what you need:
Jenny – when I made this in NC, I found crushed San Marzano tomatoes and used a 28 oz can of those along with a 14 oz can of Hunt’s tomato sauce. I usually can’t find the crushed San Marzanos at the grocery stores by my house so I just use tomato sauce with a tablespoon of sugar. I also only had one large can of tomato sauce on hand today – but I normally put in a 28 oz can and a 14 oz can. It really depends how tomato-ey you want it – this version had a little pinker sauce which I actually really like.
Put a pot of water on to boil and then cook pasta according to package directions, leaving it a little short of al dente. Ironically, I typically use penne to make baked ziti because you want the ridges on the pasta to grab onto the sauce and I typically can’t find ziti rigate (or ridges) so I use penne rigate because it still has the same basic shape. Baked penne doesn’t have the same ring to it though so I still refer to it as Baked Ziti. Meanwhile, start on the red sauce.
Start by heating about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add some minced garlic and sauté until it become fragrant about a minute.
Add in the tomato sauce (or crushed tomatoes if you found them) and sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Cut the basil into a chiffonade, add to the sauce, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
While the red sauce is simmering start making a béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add in flour and cook for a minute. Adding in a pinch of salt, a generous grind of pepper and grate in some nutmeg. I love my Microplane Spice Grater for this. Whisk in the half and half.
Bring to a gentle bubble (don’t let it come to a full rolling boil or it’s very likely to overboil). Reduce for about 5 minutes.
While everything is working slice up the mozzarella as thin as you can.
And grate up a generous helping of parmesan (about a cup).
Once the pasta is drained, pour it into a 9×13 baking dish.
Pour on the red sauce and mix it in.
Pour the béchamel sauce and gently push the pasta around to allow some to seep down to the lower layers of pasta but don’t completely stir together.
Sprinkle with the parmesan cheese.
Now comes the best part – top it with the sliced mozzarella. Don’t be afraid to rip some of the cheese to make it fit.
Pop it under the broiler until the cheese is brown and bubbly.
Look how stringy the fresh mozzarella is! This is the difference of using the real deal!
Even if you just have 1 or 2 people in your household, make the full recipe. This probably makes the BEST leftovers of any meal that I make. Depending on how much we indulge and eat when it’s fresh (this is one of those dishes that you seriously can’t stop eating!) I’ll pop a couple portions the fridge for later in the week and a couple containers in the freezer.
- 1 lb ziti rigate (or penne rigate – you want the ridges on the pasta) – I like to use whole wheat or at least enriched pasta
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 28 oz can crushed San Marzano tomatoes (or 1 can tomato sauce + 1 T sugar)
- 1 14 oz can tomato sauce (depending on how saucy you like it, you can just use the single large can)
- ¼ c fresh basil, cut in a chiffonade
- 2 T butter
- 2 T flour
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Grated nutmeg
- 2 c fat free half and half
- 1 c fresh grated parmigano reggiano (or just parmesan if that’s all you can find –or want to pay for)
- 16 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced thin
- Put the pasta water on to boil. When it comes to a boil, salt the water and cook the pasta according to package directions – stopping just short of al dente.
- Meanwhile, make the red sauce. Heat olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook about a minute until fragrant (don’t let it brown). Add the tomatoes/tomato sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the basil and simmer another 10 minutes.
- Once the red sauce is simmering make the béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for about a minute, adding a pinch of salt, a generous grind of black pepper and grating of fresh nutmeg. Whisk in the half and half and bring to a bubble. Reduce for about 5 minutes until the sauce thickens.
- Preheat the broiler to high.
- Drain pasta and transfer to a 9 x 13 baking dish. Pour the red sauce over the pasta and turn to coat. Pour the béchamel over the pasta and gently push the pasta around to allow to coat the entire top and start seeping down – don’t completely turn the pasta. Sprinkle with the grated parmigano reggiano and top with the sliced mozzarella.
- Broil until the cheese is brown and bubble, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.