I had the privilege last Sunday to be invited to my friend’s mother’s house for a full-blown Italian-American meal. His mother has this beautiful garden in her backyard tin which she grows plum tomatoes, peppers, chilies, parsley and obscene amounts of basil. Needless to say I was in heaven!!
Right when we sat down the plates of food just kept coming out..one after the other. Stuffed peppers, sausage with hot peppers, fat, juicy meatballs and the piece de resistance…baked ziti.
Baked ziti is ziti noodle, or penne (that’s what I used), which is baked with a rich tomato sauce, fresh ricotta cheese, Parmesan and mozzarella. The ziti I had from my friend’s mom has been on my mind ever since I tried it, so I had to try out my own. I added in some diced up eggplant to my baked ziti.
First things first- make the sauce. I used San Marzano canned tomatoes. Sauté 2 large onions in 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Sauté the onions until translucent. Add in 4 tablespoons of freshly chopped ginger, 6 garlic cloves finely chopped, and 2 tablespoon of freshly chopped thyme. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup of red wine. When the wine evaporates add in two 28 oz cans of the crushed San Marzano tomatoes and 1 cup of water. Tear in 7 basil leaves and sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of sugar, season again with black pepper and a little bit of salt and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer on low for 1 ½- 2 hours. Make sure the sauce thickens up before using, uncover for a bit when it is done and turn up the heat, this will reduce the sauce.
While the sauce is simmering, fry up the eggplant. In a large pot put 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pan and let that get nice and hot. Cut one eggplant into medium sized chunks. Place the eggplant into the pan and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté until all sides get brown and the meat becomes tender. Place on a side plate until needed.
When the sauce is almost nearing complete get a big pot of water with a handful of salt in it bring it to a roaring boil. Use a box and a half of the ziti or penne. Boil until the noodles still have some bite to it…Al-dente. Strain noodles out.
Place the noodles in a bowl with 1 cup of fresh whole milk ricotta, 3 torn up medium sized mozzarella balls, 1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, the eggplants and almost all the sauce, depends on how dry or wet you want you ziti. (I think ¾ is the best.) Make sure every noodle is smothered is cheese and sauce. Transfer everything into a dish, large enough to hold all of it. Tear up 2 more medium sized mozzarella balls and cover the top of the noodles, sprinkle on 1/2 cup more of freshly grated Parmesan.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes and serve hot. I like to serve mine with a simple wild arugula salad dressed with salt, olive oil and fresh lemon juice.
Presto! I did it! I made my own baked ziti..it is definitely a little different from the one I had, but it is my very own!
P.s. If there is extra sauce on hand, it is great for chicken parm, baked fish dishes..etc..