If a man cannot or will not cook, he is not a man. All REAL men – manly men, if you will – know how to cook, and by cook I don’t mean scurry around a studio kitchen yelling “BAM!” and cooking stuff most ordinary chefs don’t cook, like that wretched little Emeril does on his stupid Food Network show. Honestly…what kind of serious chef has his own studio band, complete with an African-American Doc Severinsen? I learned to cook because my mother – God rest her soul – was a superb cook. When I moved out and lived on my own, I had no choice but to teach myself the arcane ways of the kitchen. And now I happily pass what I have learned along to you, gentle reader.
Baked Ziti is the Italian-American version of good, old-fashioned Yankee-Doodle Macaroni and Cheese: it’s one of the ultimate comfort foods for those of Roman extraction as well as those of any other extraction and, like its Yankee cousin, is easy to prepare.
Inspired by last week’s 30-Clove Chicken recipe, I thought I’d drop kick this recipe a little further down the field, substituting penne pasta for ziti and adding sauteed whole cloves of garlic in the mix. This recipe will easily feed four people and utilizes a 9″ x 9″ x 4″ deep casserole dish. Keep that in mind when you dole out the ingredients.
¾ lb. regular cut penne pasta
15 oz. whole milk ricotta (the small container)
8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, diced into 1/4″ cubes
8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
2 cups finely grated mix of Parmigiano and Romano cheeses
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ lb. ground chuck
1 medium size onion, finely diced
½ green bell pepper, finely diced
½ cup red wine
5 cups plain tomato sauce
½ tsp each: fresh thyme, oregano and sage – finely chopped
1 tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves
20 garlic cloves, peeled
Kosher salt and freshly grated black pepper
1 loaf french bread, split
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Fill a large pot with water and bring to the boil on high heat.
Place a large, cast iron skillet on high heat until rocket hot. Pour in ¼ cup light olive oil and then add the beef. Stir quickly to break up and brown the beef; reserve browned beef in a bowl.
Add onions and peppers to the pan and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until soft but not brown. Deglaze with the red wine and then add the tomato sauce, followed by the spices. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
Place a small sauce pan over low heat and add ½ cup of olive oil plus all of the garlic cloves. Add a pinch of salt and a few turns of grated pepper. Saute gently on low heat and stir frequently until all of the cloves are lightly browned. Remove from the heat and let sit uncovered. (The kitchen will be redolent with the wonderful aroma of roasted garlic). Using a slotted spoon, remove the garlic cloves from the oil and reserve on the side. Be sure to reserve the oil in the pan
In a medium sized bowl, add the cubed mozzarella cheese and 1-1/2 cups of the grated cheese. Toss to completely coat the cubed mozzarella.
When the tomato sauce has finished cooking, remove from the heat. Add the penne pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta completely but do not rinse it.
Pour 2 cups of the tomato sauce into the casserole dish and then add the pasta. Stir thoroughly and then add the ricotta cheese. In succession, add the parsley, cubed mozzarella/Parmigiana-Romano cheeses, browned meat, chopped basil and all the garlic cloves. Stir thoroughly after each ingredient is added.
Smooth the surface of the penne mixture and then spoon on enough sauce to evenly coat it. Layer the mozzarella slices evenly to cover the pasta and then sprinkle on the remaining grated cheese. Place the lid on the casserole dish and bake in the oven for 1 hour.
When the pasta has finished cooking, remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. While the pasta is resting, generously brush the garlic oil on each open face of the split roll of French bread. Add a turn or two of grated black pepper and a sprinkling of the grated Parmigiana-Romano cheese. Place under the oven broiler until the bread is toasted but not burned (you’ll have to check every minute or so).
Spoon the baked penne into a large plate and add a generous helping of tossed garden salad and a portion of the garlic bread.
Now THIS is comfort food.