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.

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