Thursday evening I was feeling down and not very hungry, but feeling a craving for comfort foods. The funeral was planned for Friday afternoon and I was bummed and tired and just plain out of it.
I decided to cook something that was comforting and would remind me of my grandmother. It had to be a hearty stick-to-your-ribs Italian-American dish that would be reminiscent of things she cooked for family dinners. I decided on baked ziti - a dish filled with pasta and creamy cheese and sauce. I would make those meatballs on the side to remember her lesson in meatball making.
I have to clarify that this is not actually baked ziti. It's baked rigatoni. It's not easy to find ziti anymore. Everything is penne, penne, penne. I think it ruins the aesthetic of the dish to have those point-tipped penne in there. You need the flat-tipped ziti. Rigatoni are shaped like big ziti rigate, so I used those instead of penne.
I made one adjustment once I got home with the groceries. I ended up not making the meatballs. I know that's a big surprise, but I was so run down, I didn't have the energy to roll and fry. I ended up just putting the meat directly into the sauce.
I had to show off these ingredients because all of these things came from the Tri-State area. Whole Foods, purveyor of goods from California and Central America, finally seems to be catching on.
My sauce. Oops. Grandma Tess was from the Bronx. It's GRAVY. I may have been too tired to make meatballs, but Sarah Palin will join PETA before I use anything red from a jar.
The cheese mix. Here was have ricotta for creaminess, mozzarella for binding, and parmiggiano-reggiano for saltiness and tang. Yes, I used pre-shredded mozzarealla. Have I mentioned I made my own sauce?
I wasn't hungry all day until I started mixing up this cheese.
My creation fresh out of the oven. I sprinkled lots more of that pre-shredded mozzarella on top.
1 pound ziti or rigatoni
For the Gravy
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
2 Tbl olive oil
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
4-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 pound ground turkey (or beef or whatever ground meat you want to use)
1 tsp salt
Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Add red pepper flakes and allow to infuse for a few seconds and then add the onions. Cook until soft and add the garlic. Cook until fragrant.
You can add the meat here directly to the pan. I used turkey, which is fairly lean, so I added it directly. Add to the onions and cook through. If you are using a fattier meat, cook it separately so you can drain off the fat (unless you prefer to keep the grease - I don't judge those who do). Add browned meat to the onions and continue with the recipe.
Add the tomatoes and salt and simmer for at least a half hour.
You will have more than you need from this recipe, so save some and freeze for a quick pasta meal when you need it.
For the Cheese Mixture
1 lb ricotta
1/2 pound mozzarella, shredded (plus more for sprinkling)
1/2 cup grated parmiggiano reggiano (or you can use the cheaper domestic parmesan)
1 Tbl chopped fresh parsley
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (or a few grates of fresh)
Mix all ingredients together until well blended.
Cook pasta until just below al dente.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix all ingredients together in a buttered baking dish. Bake about 20 minutes or until nice and browned and bubbly.
Try to let it cool to a non-mouth-burning temperature before you stick your face in it.