When Sunday rolled around, I found enough of a second wind to get off my lazy kiester and cook. Hawkins called a few times during the weekend to ask what the menu would offer. Until about noon, I had no idea, and then I caught one of those random bits of energy that novelist Terry Pratchett says flies randomly around the universe -- an idea.
Rather than spend my lazy Sunday working, cleaning the house or hopefully researching a new recipe, I decided to again modify something tried and true into a new format for a new dish. I would take my marinara sauce that I perfected around age 16 to impress a long-gone ex named Jennifer Knight (and her disapproving mother) and use it to make something new, baked ziti.
Ziti is pretty much like lasagna, with lots of cheese, sauce and pasta. Rather than use long, flat pasta, I used penne pasta that is readily available in local stores, even in whole-wheat form. Rather than layer it out, like with lasagna, the pasta gets blended with a red marinara sauce and a blend of cheeses, then baked until everything is nice and hot.
My friend Dottie works at a local grocery, and has asked me to repeat the marinara sauce recipe. It’s a great base for Italian dishes, and is both simple and inexpensive. This time, I made the sauce with ground round, though it works well meatless.
Start the sauce as pretty much everything I make in the five-quart pot starts, by sautéing a large, sweet onion in extra virgin olive oil. Once the onion is in, add two chopped or minced cloves of garlic and a diced bell pepper. Season with a quarter teaspoon of salt and pepper, and the same amount of basil and oregano. As the vegetables begin to soften, that’s when we add the meat.
I don’t know if I have told this story before, but once I used plain “ground meat” for a sloppy Joe recipe. As I browned my meat, I found I needed to drain it often of fats. With less meat than the cup of lard that I was left with, I decided to get the leanest meat I could find for skillet browning. For this sauce, I used some ground round. Add a pound to pound-and-a-third seasoned with just a pinch of salt and pepper to the onions and peppers and brown all over. As the meat approaches doneness, we move to our next ingredient- the mushroom.
For marinara, the mushroom need only be fresh, not fancy. I selected eight ounces of sliced white mushrooms, and added them to the pot with another pinch of salt. Cover the pot with a lid and allow the mushrooms to cook, sweating their juices to add even more flavor to the tangy sauce. When the mushrooms appear done, add three, chopped Roma tomatoes to the pot and cover it again.
That’s about the last of the produce. When the tomatoes soften, add 30 ounces of tomato sauce, and a six-ounce can of tomato paste for thickness. A tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil ensures a smooth sauce, while a quarter-cup of red wine gives it a round flavor.
Marinara needs plenty of herbs, and I use a three: two: one ratio- three tablespoons of parsley, two of oregano and one of basil. These are proportions for dry herbs. Two of my pot’s long time buddies- bay leaves- found their way into the sauce. Add a half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes and salt and pepper to taste. Last week, I was told by a reader that my paper was not “sweet.” My sauce was a little on the bitter side as well, so I added a teaspoon of white sugar. There’s the sweetness people crave. Stir the pot and allow it to simmer for two to three hours. For the final half-hour, leave the pot uncovered for thickening.
My favorite character from the HBO series “The Wire” is named Omar Little. He is sort of a Robin Hood to the inner city, frustrating criminals with his antics. Presidential candidate Barack Obama is an Omar fan, too. Anyhow, he is known to whistle “The Farmer and the Dell” as he gleefully robs dope peddlers. As he cornered one, he relieved the man of his “bling” while singing the final verse, “The Cheese stands alone.” As I worked with my three cheeses for the ziti, I realized that as much as I like my sauce, the cheese stands alone in the dish.
Take a pound of whole milk ricotta and blend it with a quarter cup of Parmesan and a half-cup of mozzarella. Ricotta can be a little bland, though readily absorbs flavors. I boosted it with two teaspoons each of oregano and basil, two tablespoons of parsley, a few shakes of salt, and a little more of pepper. Blend it all up and yeah, that cheese will stand alone.
Boil one pound of pasta according to the package directions to make it slightly al-dente. Again, I preferred the whole-wheat penne. Drain it well, and allow it to cool slightly.
Take a large casserole pan, ours is 9 x13 and grease it lightly. Line the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of sauce. Add a layer of pasta, then one of cheese, blending it with the sauce. Add any leftover mozzarella from an eight-ounce bag throughout the layers with some of the Parmesan. Repeat until you run out of ingredients and top the pan with more Parmesan and mozzarella.
Ziti can add other ingredients, like fresh herbs, Italian sausage, zucchini and pretty much anything pasta-friendly, but I kept mine simple. Bake it in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. The house will smell great as it cooks. When it was done, I served it with some steamed broccoli.
Sanci spent her weekend with Hawkins and got to enjoy supper with us. She enjoyed a second helping of the meal, so I think it must have been a hit. Hawkins ate plenty, and me, well, let’s just say I had to put on my “fat pants” the next day. As is our custom, we watched more episodes of “The Wire,” before proceeding to “Generation Kill.” A lengthy meal to cook, we lightened our evening with an episode of “The Muppet Show.” Comedy balanced drama, tangy tomato sauce complimented rich cheese and friends balanced the evening, so a good time was had by all. Good eating.