Baked Ziti

Baked Ziti

My life is spinning a bit out of control these days. It’s all good stuff, but it is happening fast and furiously. I counter the stress in a couple of ways. One is cycling, the other is talking whining to friends about it. But what really helps me is to cook. I’ve said it before, but being in the kitchen chopping, dicing and stirring puts my world back in order. It’s even better if I’m cooking for a bunch of people.

Stress combined with lots of rainy, cool days and my Italian heritage make this comfort food a must have. Baked Zita has all the yummy goodness of a nice lasagna without all the work and hour long cooking time.

Serve with some zucchini (try this recipe) and a nice crusty Italian bread – you’re all set. Of course you’ll want a side salad if you’re in my family.  Enjoy.

Baked Ziti

  • 1 pound ziti pasta
  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound bulk Italian sausage, spicy or mix 1/2 spicy and 1/2 sweet
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 to 4 tsp crushed garlic
  • 2 tsp dried basil, crushed
  • 1 tsp dried oregano, crushed
  • 1/4 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1- 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 2 – 14 oz cans tomato sauce
  • 8 oz mozzarella cheese, grated
  • 12 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup grated parmesan

Saucepan, skillet, 9×13 baking dish

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and boil, uncovered, until the pasta is al dente, you want it very chewy as it will continue to cook while you bake it. Drain the pasta and toss with a little olive oil. DO NOT RINSE (you want the pasta starchy so it grabs the sauce)

In a skillet, brown the sausage. When it is mostly browned, add the onions and stir well to combine. Sauté everything until the onions are translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, spices and stir to combine. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, then add tomato paste, stirring to coat all the meat. Add tomato sauce and bring to a low simmer for 5 minutes.

Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a lightly oiled 9×13-inch casserole pan. Add a layer of pasta, ladle more sauce, spoon 1/2 the ricotta cheese over sauce, in dollops (three across and 4 to 5 up works well, kind of like you’d do cookie dough). Spread a 1/4 of the mozzarella. Add more pasta, more sauce, remaining ricotta, 1/4 of the mozzarella, sauce, pasta and the rest of the sauce. Top with mozzarella and parmesan.

Bake at 350°F until the top is bubbly and browned, about 20 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes before cutting. I put a cookie sheet under the baking dish to catch any sauce bubbling over.

Serves at least 8

NOTES:

This can be put together ahead of time and refrigerated. Bake for 15 minutes, covered with foil, bake for additional 20 minutes until cheese is bubbly and brown and center is hot.

As this serves 8, you can use two 8×8 baking dishes and freeze one for later.

In Praise of Meatloaf

I don’t make a lot of meatloaves.  I cannot remember that last time I actually made one.  But the stars aligned last week and it had to be meatloaf.  I had gotten a great deal on good ground beef, so I had purchased it in bulk, JeffW had posted an amazing looking meatloaf earlier, and I had some homemade tomato soup I had to do use up.

A quick call to mom, to make sure the recipe I was thinking of was a good one and I was all set.  I put it together the night before and let it sit, wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator until I was ready to form it.

I have 2 mini-loaf pans that I use for making holiday breads.  They are the best size to make banana breads or other fruit breads to wrap for the holidays.   And as it turns out, perfect size for making meatloaf.  Each pan holds about half the amount of  a regular pan.  This shortened cooking time by about 30 minutes and kept the meatloaf from drying out.  One for dinner, one for sandwiches the next day.   Here’s my recipe.  Nothing fancy at all:

Meatloaf

  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 1-1/2 lbs ground beef
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup tomato soup*
  • 1/2 finely chopped small onion
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp Louisiana Hot Sauce
  • 1 tsp crushed garlic
  • 1/2 tsp pepper

large bowl and 2 mini-loaf pans or 1 regular loaf pan

Mix oats and milk together and let sit for 5 minutes until milk is absorbed. In the bowl, add beef and create a large well in the center.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Shape into 1 or 2 loaves and place in pan.  Bake at 350 degrees until center reaches 160 degrees.  Time will vary depending on pan type – glass, aluminum or mini.  Makes 8 servings.

* the tomato soup had peppers, carrots and lots of spices in it, so I didn’t feel the need to add more to the loaf.  But you can add finely chopped carrots, green peppers and some basil or thyme as desired.

While I was searching for my meatloaf recipe, in my trusty Better Homes and Garden’s Cookbook (that I have had since high school), I came across one that sounded interesting.  If I had ricotta on hand, I would have made it.  I used their recipe as a guide, but because I think theirs was only a good start I changed it quite a bit.  So in case you are looking for a change-up in your regular meatloaf, this one might be one to try.

Italian Meatloaf

  • 2 eggs
  • 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 green pepper, finely chopped
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp crushed garlic
  • 1-1/2 lbs ground beef

Filling:

  • 12 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup Italian bread crumbs
  • 3 button mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 cup fresh spinach, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp crushed oregano and basil
  • 1 tsp crushed garlic

8×8 baking dish

Mix the meatloaf together as above.  Pat half the mixture into the baking dish.  Beat ricotta and eggs together well, add remaining ingredients and spread over meat in the baking dish.  Cover with remaining meat mixture, spread evenly.  Bake at 350 degrees until meat in both layers is 160 degrees (about 50 minutes).  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Roast Chicken with Fettuccine

Thawed a whole chicken overnight in the fridge.  I was torn between roasting it in the oven or out on the grill.  My basic laziness won out, I did it in the oven.  Nothing you haven’t seen here before so I won’t go into it.  I will talk about the cheese sauce for the fettuccine.  I had some fresh goat cheese that wasn’t getting any fresher, and a bunch of asparagus that needed dealt with so I plugged those into the Great Gazoogle Recipe Finder.  Plenty of recipes to choose from, I sampled several and went with none of them in particular and several in general.  If that makes any sense.

I ended up roasting the asparagus in a 400 oven for about five minutes after tossing them in olive oil.  For the cheese sauce I made a roux of butter and flour and stirred in some heavy cream and half & half until it thickened and then added about six ounces of the goat cheese and a good dollop of ricotta.  Grated in some lemon zest, and some parmesan.  Dumped the pasta and the sauce into a bowl with the asparagus and tossed it together.  Sliced the chicken into chunks and layered that on for a picture then plated some for Mrs J and myself.  Good stuff.  The sauce got a bit thick, perhaps some of the pasta water stirred into the sauce would have helped that.

Enjoy!

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More Better Lasagna

Did I mention that the Asian/International grocery near me had a pretty good cheese selection?  Much better than the supermarkets.  We browsed through the cheese section yesterday and made off with some nice stuff.  Among the cheeses were a couple of pounds of fresh mozzarella.  I was thinking tomato, mozzarella, and basil sammiches on garlic toast but Mrs J went straight to wanting some lasagna.  I aim to please.  Started out thinking I’ll make two, one to freeze and one to bake, so I made a bunch of meat sauce.  Two pounds of Italian sausage, two largish cans of tomato chunks, a can of tomato paste, an entire head of garlic sliced thin on the mandolin.  Plenty of fresh basil.  Some fresh mushrooms, sliced.  More stuff.  Couldn’t get her enthused enough to make fresh pasta-she pointed out that we had some dried lasagna noodles.  OK, fine.

Mixed up some ricotta with an egg and garlic powder, red pepper flakes, some grated parmesan, a we bit of shredded mozzarella.  Debated with myself whether to stir the fresh cheese in with it, opted not to.  Boiled some spinach for a few minutes and wrung the water out of it after cooling it under the faucet.  Stirred that into the ricotta mix.

Started the assembly of the casserole when the noodles were finished and cool.  Pretty soon it was clear I could get all of it into one dish.  A huge lasagna.  Popped that into the oven at 350 for 40-45 minutes, then topped it with a bit of the shredded mozzarella, more grated parmesan, and a few scraps of fresh mozzarella I had saved back thinking still of the tomato sammiches.  Gave it another 15 or so, until the top was toasting.  Didn’t let it rest long enough last night so I’ve included some pics from today that show the layers better.

Enjoy!

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Stuffed manicotti and a side of broccoli with cheese sauce

I was all “what cool thing am I going to fix for dinner” and thought “Aha! Stuffed pasta with a broccoli cheese sauce!” but then I came to my senses and decided to do the broccoli as a side.  Did I say “”came to my senses”?  Yeah. Idiot.  This was plenty:

I’ve done sausage stuffed pasta and I’ve done cheese stuffed pasta.  Live large, dude!  This was a sausage and cheese stuffed pasta.  Heh.  Sauteed Italian sausage with garlic and onions and mixed that with ricotta and some chopped fresh parsley.  Also a few dried herbs-basil and oregano, and some onion powder.  Some garlic powder “just to be sure”.  Boil the manicotti for seven minutes and cool under running water, stuff the tubes with the meat/cheese mixture and array them atop some sauce in a casserole.  Top with more sauce.  Bake at 350 for half an hour or so, then top with mozzarella and continue baking for another fifteen or until the cheese topping toasts up nice.

I mentioned a broccoli side?

Enjoy!

Thursday Night Menu: Baked Gnocchi in Fire Roasted Tomato-Basil Sauce

This is an elegant dinner that looks like it took you all day to prepare.  From start to finish I cooked the asparagus and gnocchi in 1/2 hour.  The strawberry bread takes an hour to cook, but it’s a breeze to put together.  So if you feel the need for something special, but still easy, this one could be for you.

On the board tonight:

  1. Baked Ricotta Gnocchi
  2. Broiled Asparagus
  3. Loaf of good crusty bread
  4. Strawberry Bread

Christmas Eve is spent eating good food at friends’ Mark and Larissa’s house. Mark’s mom is from Italy and Larissa’s mom is from Japan, and luckily for me, the subject always turns to food from both countries. This year we talked about ravioli, gnocchi and fish in salt domes. I have to confess I’m not a fan of gnocchi. Should be good, right? – potato goodness, covered in sauce. What’s not to love? It just isn’t a favorite of mine. Maybe because I’ve never had it fresh I am missing out. But after we discussed how to make it fresh, well, I don’t think I’d be making it anytime soon. Then I saw a recipe for Ricotta Gnocchi and it sounded good and best of all, easy.  So I’d thought I’d try it. This is what I came up with and it quickly became a favorite of my guests.

Baked Ricotta Gnocchi in Fire Roasted Tomato and Basil Sauce

Sauce:

  • 28 oz fire roasted crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp crushed garlic
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tsp dried oregano (or 1 tbsp fresh chopped)

Add ingredients in saucepan, bring to a low boil, reduce to low and let simmer while preparing gnocchi.

Topping:

  • 4 oz shredded mozzarella
  • 1 oz grated parmesan or Romano cheese

Gnocchi:

  • 15 oz Ricotta (whole or low-fat)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 oz fresh parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 1 cup unbleached flour

large stock pot, mixing bowl, mixer, glass baking dish- lightly oiled

While preparing gnocchi, bring water to boil in large sauce pan or stock pot. In a mixing bowl, mix together Ricotta and eggs. Add parmesan, salt, pepper and flour, stir in by hand until combined, do not over mix.  Bring water up to a low boil, you’ll want a low boil to keep the dough from falling apart as it hits the water.  Form dough into cookie dough sized balls (I use a cookie scoop, you can use two tablespoons) and drop into boiling water. Do not crowd, cook in several batches as needed (I managed 12-13 per batch of 1″ balls). Cook for 7 minutes, remove with slotted spoon, draining well,  to baking dish. When all the gnocchi are cooked, cover with sauce, and top with cheeses. Bake for 10 minutes in a 400 degree oven, until cheese is bubbling.

This week I actually made this a day ahead, keeping the gnocchi, sauce and topping separate, so I could bribe the guys at work to attend a lunch meeting.  I put it together and baked just before serving and it turned out very well.  I baked it for 20 minutes until it was heated through.

Broiled Asparagus

  • 1 lb Asparagus
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste

baking sheet

Cut woody stems off of asparagus and toss lightly with olive oil. Spread onto baking sheet in one layer. Broil until lightly brown and tender, turning as each side browns, about 8-12 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Strawberry Bread

  • 1 ½ cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup butter
  • 12 oz frozen strawberries, thawed & chopped*
  • ½ cup chopped pecans

loaf pan, greased

Combine dry ingredients. Add eggs, oil, strawberries and pecans. Stir just until all ingredients are moistened. Spoon batter into loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pan 5 minutes then run knife around edges & remove to cool on wire rack.

*I pureed mine, works fine, needs additional 5 minutes cooking time

Shopping List:

  • 28 oz fire roasted crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • Fresh basil
  • 4 oz shredded mozzarella
  • 3 oz grated parmesan or Romano
  • 15 oz Ricotta (Whole or low-fat)
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 lb asparagus
  • 1 loaf nice crusty bread
  • 12 oz frozen strawberries
  • 1 stick butter
  • 4 oz chopped pecans

Also: garlic, dried oregano (or fresh), salt, pepper, flour, baking soda, salt, pepper, olive oil, cinnamon, sugar

Spinach Lasagna

By request here is my spinach lasagna, minus the homemade pasta. When I do make the pasta, I make three, pan-sized noodles, rolled very, very thin. I place them uncooked in the dish, so they absorbed much of the sauce.  I usually make a bit extra sauce to serve with it.

But here is a traditional spinach lasagna with packaged pasta. I had to do it from memory, because I cannot find my recipe anywhere.  It’s probably tucked inside a cookbook somewhere.   This recipe takes about an hour to prepare and another hour to cook. It easily serves 6 – 8.  It was always a treat at our house when mom decided to make it.

Spinach Lasagna

Sauce:

  • 3-15 oz cans tomato sauce
  • 2-6 oz cans tomato paste
  • 14 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tsp oregano, crushed
  • 2 tsp basil, crushed
  • 2 tsp crushed garlic
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled & finely grated
  • pinch of sugar (reduces acidity of the tomatoes)
  • Optional: ½ lb ground beef and ½ spicy Italian sausage, browned

Saucepan

Add all ingredients to saucepan on medium-high, stirring constantly until it begins to boil lightly. Turn to low and let simmer while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Lasagna:

  • 1 pkg lasagna noodles (16 oz), cooked and placed in cool water until layering
  • 16 oz ricotta cheese
  • 8 oz package frozen spinach, thawed or 8 oz fresh, washed and dried
  • 1 egg
  • 12 oz sliced mozzarella cheese
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese

13×9 baking dish (I prefer glass), lightly oiled

To prepare: Mix ricotta, spinach and egg until well blended. Ladle a layer of sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Cover in a single layer of noodles. Ladle sauce over noodles. Spoon ½ of the ricotta mixture evenly (if you place large dollops evenly like putting cookie dough on a baking sheet, fairly close together, it will spread as it cooks, no need to smooth it). Layer 1/3 of the mozzarella over the ricotta. Repeat: noodles, sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, noodles. On top of the last layer of noodles, add remaining sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, uncovered – I like to place the baking dish on a baking sheet to catch any spills as it bubbles. Place knife through the center, if it comes out heated through, remove and let stand for 10 minutes before cutting and serving. If it needs more cooking time, you can cover with foil to keep the cheese from burning and cook 10 more minutes. Let stand uncovered before serving.