Just because I write a food blog doesn’t mean I always feel like cooking. Believe me, there are many days when the thought of making another interesting, tasty dinner sends me running for our yellow file of take-out menus.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with ordering in; we all need a night off once in a while. But another way to achieve a respite from dinner duty is to stretch one evening’s meal into two. There are plenty of dishes that taste better on the second day than the first. (At least that’s what I keep telling myself.)
A perfect example is baked ziti with spicy sausage. I make it once a year, only on a cold Sunday afternoon with football playing on the television nearby. Somehow these conditions have become inextricably linked to my ziti-making activities. The dish would probably come out just fine without them, but I’m not about to risk it.
This combination of chewy pasta, gooey, milky mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and spicy bits of ground sausage is one of my favorite comfort foods. A big tray lasts at least a couple of days, and by the time I warm it up on the second day, the flavors are more strongly pronounced, the texture solid and firm.
I came up with this recipe a few years ago, when I adapted my mother’s meatless version to accommodate Jim’s affection for all foods spicy and sausage-related. You may notice that my recipe does not include ricotta cheese. This is not a mistake. My mother only uses mozzarella cheese in her baked ziti, with maybe a sprinkling of parmesan across the top of the pasta. As a child I used to hate, loathe, and avoid ricotta cheese at all costs; I always felt there was something cloying and heavy about it. And while I have since made my peace with the creamy curds, I still do not want them in my baked ziti. I just don’t.
Remember to scoop your portion of ziti from the edge of the pan. The slightly charred bits are the best. Oh, and one more thing: Do not try to stretch this meal into a three-day affair. I speak from experience. I tried during the week before Thanksgiving, in order to devote more time to my pumpkin pie, but I couldn’t even look at the ziti by the third day. We all have our limits.
Recipe for Baked Ziti with Spicy Sausage
- 1 1/4 lbs smooth ziti
- 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 medium ball of fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into small chunks
- 6 links fresh, spicy sausage, casings removed
- 1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese, grated
- 1/2 large onion, diced
- olive oil
Start with the tomato sauce: Heat a dash of olive oil in a saucepan under low heat. Add onions and sauté until softened. Remove onions. Add a can of crushed tomatoes and a pinch of salt. Bring the tomatoes to a boil, stir, and add the water. Simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes. Stir the sauce every once in a while. Once the sauce has thickened, take it off the heat and place aside.
Add water to a large pasta pot and bring it to a boil.
While your water heats, warm a very small dash of olive oil in a non-stick skillet or sauté pan. When hot, add your sausage. Break the sausage up with a wooden spoon as it browns. Once the sausage has cooked through, place it aside.
Add the pasta to the salted, boiling water. Cook until it’s just short of al dente. You can test it by taking a bite. It should not be completely cooked all the way through because it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Add some of the tomato sauce to a large casserole dish and spread it into a thin layer. Mix some of the sauce with the ziti, so that it is well-coated. Add the mozzarella cheese and sausage and mix thoroughly. Add pasta mixture to the casserole dish. Ladle sauce over the top so that it is covered with sauce. Sprinkle some grated parmesan over the pasta.
Bake for about 45 minutes. Let it rest at least 15-30 minutes before serving. Enjoy!