Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Roasted Tomato and Sausage Baked Ziti
Say what you want about Carmela Soprano, but the woman can cook. Re-watching The Sopranos recently gave me a major hankering for some of her baked ziti, a dish she trotted out with some frequency for family dinners and guests (she even dumped an entire batch into the garbage once, the horror!).
This is the sort of dish which you can make lots of different ways, although it's never going to be a truly "quick" meal. About the shortest way to do it is with a jarred meat-and-tomato sauce, although you're still looking at an hour-long dish, since you have to first boil the noodles before assembling and baking the dish (plus, you're using jarred sauce, which is frankly not very good compared to what you could whip up yourself is about the same amount of time). The longest route involves making Italian "Sunday gravy," a meat, vegetable and tomato sauce that bubbles on your stove all afternoon. Obviously, I'd rather have something like that than something from the jar, but cooking all afternoon can be tiring.
My version finds what I think is a happy medium. My sauce comes together quickly but is made with all fresh ingredients, including fresh tomatoes that roasted the previous afternoon. I used a mixture of hot and mild Italian sausage, but you could certainly use only one or the other, depending on your heat preference. A lot of recipes add egg to the ricotta, presumably to smooth it out so you can spread it more easily. I find gently heating it in the microwave to do the trick just fine.
I served this with a simple side salad of lettuce dressed with a mustard vinaigrette and a 2008 Plumpjack syrah, a nice choice, since it's slight sweetness, spicy flavor and mild tannins complemented the pasta perfectly.
Roasted Tomato and Sausage Baked Ziti
Makes 8 servings
Note: to soften ricotta that's just out of the refrigerator, transfer to a microwave-safe container and microwave on high for 10 seconds, stir and repeat until the ricotta is easily spreadable.
1 lb. dried ziti noodles (may use other tube-shaped noodles, such as penne)
Salt, to taste.
3/4 lb. hot or mild Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1 recipe of simple roasted tomatoes (see recipe below)
1/2 cup dry white wine (may use dry vermouth if you have some on hand you're trying to use up)
Olive oil spray or additional olive oil
1 cup ricotta cheese, softened (see note above)
8 oz. part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded (I recommend shredding it yourself)
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add noodles and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
3. Heat a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. Add sausage and cook, breaking up as the sausage cooks through. Remove cooked sausage from pan and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Remove sausage drippings from pan. Transfer the sausage to a cutting board and chop to an even pebble-sized consistency.
4. Add olive oil and butter to the pan. When the butter is melted, add the onion and garlic. Season with salt, pepper, thyme and oregano. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cooked sausage, roasted tomatoes, white wine and 1 cup of water. Increase heat to bring mixture to a bubble, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the cooked ziti noodles.
5. Spray a 9 X 13 baking dish with olive oil (or brush with olive oil). Transfer half of the noodles-and-sauce mixture to the baking dish and smooth with a spatula. Spread the ricotta on top, then spread half of the shredded mozzarella over the ricotta. Add the remaining noodles-and-sauce on top in an even layer, then spread the remaining mozzarella on top of that. Sprinkle with the grated parmigano-reggiano cheese.
6. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake in the hot oven covered for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes until the mixture is bubbling and the cheese has melted. Remove from oven, allow to cool about 5 minutes and serve.
Simple Roasted Tomatoes
3 lb. fresh tomatoes, stem end removed, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus olive oil spray
Kosher salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Add the tomatoes to a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and toss to combine. Spray a 9 X 13 baking dish with olive oil. Spread the tomatoes in an even layer in the baking dish.
3. Bake the tomatoes until they have reduced significantly in size, look shrived and are starting to brown around the edges, about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Stir every hour for the first couple hours, then more frequently, up to every 10 to 15 minutes when around the time you hit the 3-hour mark and most of the liquid has evaporated. This is to prevent the tomatoes from burning.
4. When done, the tomatoes should be shrived, lightly browned in places with little moisture remaining in the pan. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a container to store in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.