Sunday, May 20, 2012

Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce

     This is one of our favorites, but we've never actually sat down and written out a recipe for it; it's typically just what we happen to have on hand or, if we're feeling posh, some higher-end ingredients.  Since we had fresh basil in our herb garden (finally!) and are going into our lean summer months, we decided to go with something simple that would be easy and relatively affordable to feed a group of people.  After all, Jessi's family was in town and we had to eat!
     Start with about a tablespoon of good extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed cast aluminum sauce pan, and saute half a large white onion.  When the onion becomes translucent, add the spice mixture from our spicy Italian sausage recipe found here, but instead of mixing the spices directly into the meat, add them to the onion and a 28oz can of HyVee tomato sauce.  Stir well to combine, and then add a pound of ground beef.  We decided to add the beef raw, and simmer this for awhile to cook, rather than cooking the beef first, to see if we get a better flavor (we liked the result).  Finally, add between 15-20 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped.  Cover very lightly (to avoid spattering tomato sauce) and simmer for a good long while. 
     When the meat sauce is ready, either mix with some seriously al-dente pasta (we used a box of Smart Taste ziti) and layer it with the cheese mixture, or lay down a layer of pasta, a layer of meat sauce, a layer of cheese, and repeat (this is the route we took).  For cheese, we bought an 8oz (2 cup) bag of regular shredded part-skim mozzarella (2% is healthier, but when buying a bunch, the part-skim is cheaper) and an 8oz wedge of American-made Romano.  Usually we prefer the Pecorino Romano (Italian sheep's milk cheese) but HyVee didn't have that, so we got the regular stuff.  While it's definitely not as good as the Italian stuff, and I'd never use it on a cheese plate, it was just fine in the dish.  It melds quite well with the other flavors, but it doesn't have the sharp, salty/peppery bite of the pecorino and, if you can find it, the Italian-sourced stuff is much better.  We grated the Romano in a food processor for time's sake, but you can hand-grate as well, and the grate will probably be a bit better that way.  Layer into a deep dish 8x8 or 9x9 square (we did a layer of pasta, a layer of meat sauce, about 3/4 of the Romano, and 1/2 of the mozzarella, followed by more pasta, more sauce, and the remaining cheese, and it came out perfectly), and bake at 350 until bubbly if, like us, you've layered this together and chosen to bake later or, if you are putting this together while all the ingredients are hot, put on the bottom oven rack and broil until the cheese is melted and beginning to turn brown and bubbly.  Serve with crusty garlic bread and a good Italian red (or, if you prefer 'new world' reds, a briary California old-vine Zinfandel).  Enjoy!

After enjoying this, we decided that, in the future, we'll make the following changes.  Instead of the cayenne/red pepper flakes amounts in the original Italian sausage recipe, we used 1/2 tablespoon of red pepper flakes tonight.  It was good, but was a bit spicier than you'd typically think a baked pasta dish might be.  Next time, we'll probably halve that amount, and go with 1/4 tablespoon.  Also, the basil didn't come through as strongly as we expected it to here, so next time we might go with 30-40 leaves, chopped finely, instead of the 15-20 we used this time, and see where that puts us.

Six-Grain Beer Bread

   Months ago, I posted our first couple of forays into 'cloning' the perfect beer bread.  After several months and numerous failed attempts (some more interesting/dicey/horrific than others...) we've finally gotten pretty darn close.  It's not perfect, but it's really good and surprisingly close.  Sure, we'll still buy the mix now and again, but this is easy to make and it has the benefit of not having to be mail ordered.  Bread craving at 10 p.m.? No probs, mate. 
    At any rate, I'll post that recipe the next time I make it and can take some pictures, but in the meantime, I'll post a riff we did on this recipe over the weekend that worked out quite nicely indeed.  We were browsing up at the Prairie Home General Store here in town and, along with some pepper/tomato plants and some delicious and local (as in right down the road) grass-fed, free range beef, we picked up some 6-grain flower.  I'm not sure, it may be from Trader Joe's, as the couple that owns the store goes there occasionally, but it may be a house mix as well.  At any rate, the flour is made up of organic wheat, rye, barley, corn, millet, and buckwheat.  Here's the recipe, for four mini loaves or one large loaf.

   -3 cups 6-grain flour
   -1 tsp. baking powder
   -1 tsp. baking soda
   -1 pinch salt
   -1/4 cup dark brown sugar
   -1 beer (we used crummy St. Pauli Girl lager from Germany for its nice, malty taste and low hop levels)
   -butter, melted, for brushing over the tops of the loaves prior to baking (optional)

     Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl.  The batter will be very, very thick.  Spoon into loaf pans.  For one large loaf, we bake it for around 45-55 minutes, if I recall correctly, and about 35 minutes for the four mini loaves.  Oven temp. at 350. 
     Overall, this came out really nicely.  It's got a really nice, deep multigrain character, and the sweetness is light, and works well overall with the grain profile (though Jessi said she could do with a touch more sugar).  We chose to forgo the butter this time in the interest of trying to be somewhat healthy, and honestly, while it's not quite as good, it's not really missed, either.  Overall, I think we'll be making this one again.  At some point we might substitute honey or molasses for the brown sugar to see what that might do? 

PS, this went very well with some Coombe Castle Saxon Shires cheese (layers of Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Cheshire, Derby, and Cheddar), which we picked up at HyVee.      
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