Baked ziti is a great do-it-ahead pasta dish that is loaded with gusto. It can be made ahead and held for two to three days (in the cooler, covered) and the flavor will actually intensify. There are several ways to portion and serve this dish. You can simply scoop a portion out of the pan (in block form, kind of like lasagna), dress it with some hot marinara sauce and sprinkle some grated Parmesan over the sauce and serve.
Another nice presentation is to scoop a portion out of the pan and spread it over the plate so it is in one layer instead of piled up. Dress with hot marinara sauce and cheese before serving.
Another flavor option that I like to explore with this versatile dish is to add sautéed spinach to the ricotta cheese mixture. I have also done this dish with mushrooms and peppers. Sauté the mushrooms in olive oil until they give up their moisture and crisp up a bit. The peppers I would use would be canned roasted red peppers. In other words, should you wish to make a second version of this tasty dish it would be Baked Ziti with Vegetables. In that case, leave out the sausage and add spinach, mushrooms, peppers, even artichoke hearts. Go for the gusto.
BAKED ZITI WITH SAUSAGE
Serves 6-8 (scale up in direct proportion)
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely chopped yellow onion
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
4 cups tomato puree or all-purpose ground tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
2 teaspoons dried basil, crumbled
8 ounces ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fl at-leaf parsley
½ cup grated Parmesan
1 pound ziti pasta
½ pound mozzarella, shredded (about 2 cups)
In a large skillet or sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the onion and saute, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the sausage and cook and stir for 5-6 minutes, or until the sausage is cooked through. Remove from the heat and drain off the excess fat. Add the tomato puree, oregano and basil. Cook the sauce at a steady simmer while preparing the rest of the dish. In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, salt, parsley and Parmesan. Mix thoroughly.
Cook the pasta until it is not quite al dente (it will finish cooking in the oven). Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Take the sauce off the heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes. Add the sauce to the pasta and ricotta mixture and combine well.
Pour the pasta-sauce mixture into a 4- to 5-quart baking dish or hotel pan. Level the top with the back of a spatula or spoon. Spread the mozzarella evenly over the pasta and bake until the cheese starts to speckle brown and the sauce bubbles, about 15 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.