For lunch, I made a baked ziti with homemade breadsticks. The great thing about baked ziti is that you can make it ahead. I love make ahead dishes because then you aren't stuck in the kitchen cooking and cleaning while everyone eagerly awaits the good eats. With ziti, you can make it the day before and leave it in the fridge or freezer! While the ziti cooks in the oven, you can spend time with your guests without feeling worried about being away from the stove. ;)
Onto this (okay, I almost typed "thiz ziti") ziti dish. This baked ziti uses meatballs. My mom had some premade meatballs on hand, so we used those, but I'm also include ingredients and directions for making your own meatballs.
For the tomato sauce, my mom had a few jars of basic tomato sauce in her pantry. I decided to "doctor" up these sauces. A good tomato sauce makes all the difference! I added the jarred sauces to a large Dutch oven, and I sautéed onion and garlic which I then added into the Dutch oven. I also added a few generous splashes of red wine and around a tablespoon olive oil, as well as some fresh parsley and basil. Because butter makes everything taste better, I also added half a stick of butter. To finish it off, I added sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a generous tablespoon of Italian seasoning to the mixture. After everything simmered, it made for one great tomato sauce.
Despite the copious amount of food in my parents' house around Christmas, there was no ricotta cheese at my parents' house (and I've become a bit of a snob when it comes to making ricotta because nothing compares to the creaminess of homemade ricotta...make it yourself or bust!), but there was plenty of cottage cheese. The cottage cheese add a little tang and was a nice contrast from the traditional ricotta.
This dish was a hit! I forgot to take pictures after it cooked, but everyone gobbled it up. Leftovers taste even better since the flavors have marinated more, too.
Yields 6-8 servings
1 lb. meatballs or ingredients below if you are making meatballs:
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 large eggs
2 tbsp. milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano
1 lb. ground beef (or a mix of sausage and ground beef)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour (for dredging)
1 lb. ziti pasta
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 cups tomato sauce or three jars of tomato sauce
3 cups cottage cheese or whole milk ricotta
2 cups mozzarella, shredded
3/4 cup Parmesan, shredded
8 tbsp. butter, cut into pats
Basil leaves, optional
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grease a large baking 9 x 13 baking dish and set aside. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
For the meatballs:
If you are making the meatballs: In a large bowl, combine the bread crumbs, eggs, milk, Romano cheese, parsley, salt, and pepper, and mix. Then, add the ground beef and mix until the ingredients are evenly dispersed. Shape into bite size meatballs (a little under the size of a tablespoon). Roll each meatball in flour, and shake off the excess.
For homemade or purchased meatballs: In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When almost smoking, add the meatballs in batches, and allow them to brown on one side for about 3 minutes. Turn meatballs and brown the other wise. After the meatballs are cooked, remove from the pan from the stove, and put the meatballs on a plate.
For the pasta:
In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for about 8 minutes or until al dente. Drain the pasta and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix the tomato sauce and the cottage cheese/ricotta (along with any desired salt and pepper), and then add the cooked pasta and meatballs. Stir to combine, and then pour in the mixture into the baking pan. Sprinkle the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese over the top. Place the pats of butter over the ziti, and add the basil leaves.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Then, remove the foil and bake for another 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden and bubbly.
Note: In case this is a make-ahead meal, after you assemble the ziti, you can also refrigerate it (for up to 2 days) or freeze it. If you freeze it, remove it from the freeze a day before you want to bake and allow it to defrost in the fridge overnight.
Source: Adapted with modification from Giada De Laurentiis