BAKED ZITI, CLASSIC OLD-SCHOOL ITALIAN COMFORT FOOD

Posted: February 10, 2019 in Food, Italian, pasta, Recipes
Tags: , , , , , ,

As a teenager growing up on Long Island, I worked long hours at a local Italian restaurant called Pizza City East in Plainview. (The original Pizza City was in Ozone Park, Queens.) Though the pay sucked, I made some important friendships that have lasted to this day. I also learned many Italian cooking basics: how to open clams for red and white clam sauce, the secrets of great pizza dough, the art of a perfect espresso, and how to make massive quantities of baked ziti.

When I got older and I shared an apartment with my buddy, Don, we would regularly invite a large crowd of people over for a party, and a huge tray of baked ziti was an inexpensive and hugely popular way to feed a crowd that was doing some serious drinking.

The basic ingredients of baked ziti are the same as lasagna, the main difference being the wetness factor. If you make lasagna too wet, the thing will fall apart when you try to slice it. But baked ziti is meant to be sloppy, and it actually shines in its incredible gooiness!

My baked ziti consists of 2 sauces (a meat sauce and a bechamel sauce) and 4 cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, and Parmigiano Reggiano) using pasta that is boiled much firmer than al dente. Technically, I like to use penne, not ziti. It’s firmer, and really works well with this recipe. And there are plenty of great pasta choices out there for gluten-free diets. Our favorite brand of GF pasta is Garofalo.

 

Gooey and delicious!

Meat Sauce…
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 lb. grass-fed ground beef or pastured pork, or a combination of both
1 tablespoon dried parsley
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

 

Heat a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil in a large pan and sauté the onions until translucent. I finely chop the carrots by peeling them all the way down until there’s nothing but a pile of peeled pieces, then chopping them up so small, they almost melt into the sauce. Add the carrots and cook for 2 minutes. Add the beef (or pork) and cook the meat until it browns. Add the parsley, oregano, basil, salt and pepper and mix well.

Empty the can of tomatoes into a blender and blend it until smooth. Add this to the pan and mix well.

Cook the meat sauce for about 10 minutes, then remove it from the heat and set it aside.

 

Bechamel sauce…
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoon all-purpose flour (I use Cup4Cup flour to make it gluten-free)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups 2% milk

 

Bechamel is a basic white sauce. It adds a wonderful creaminess to lasagna or baked ziti.

Melt the butter in a saucepan under medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until you’ve combined the butter and flour and have a light roux.

Add the milk, and keep whisking, making sure you don’t get any lumps in the sauce. Season with the salt and pepper.

Keep whisking until the sauce thickens. Once it does, remove it from the heat and set it aside.

Beautiful baked ziti!

 

12 oz. small pasta, like ziti or penne
4 slices provolone cheese (about 4 oz.)
ricotta cheese (about 8 oz.)
mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 8 oz.)
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

 

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

For baked ziti, use a deeper pan than you would for lasagna, about 4″ deep.

Take several large spoonfuls (about half) of the meat sauce and the béchamel sauce and mix them together in the pan.

Boil the pasta in a pot of salty boiling water until very firm…firmer than al dente. Drain the pasta and pour it into the pan with the sauces. Mix really well.

Tear the slices of provolone and add them to the pan, mixing them in. Mix in the ricotta cheese, and handful of the mozzarella, and all the Parmigiano Reggiano, stirring really well to get everything mixed together.

If there’s still room in the pan, keep adding equal parts meat sauce and béchamel sauce until you’ve used them up.

Smooth the top of the ziti mix flat with the back of a large spoon, then sprinkle the remaining mozzarella evenly over the top. Sprinkle a little oregano on top, and place the pan in the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the mozzarella on top is a beautiful golden brown.

 

Baked ziti, before baking.

 

 

The best mac and cheese ever: baked ziti!

 

Of course, when you’re cooking, there’s always someone hanging around to grab a taste of the baked ziti before it goes in the oven…

 

 

 

 

 

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