Saturday, October 3, 2009

Southernized Baked Ziti

A slightly southernized version of baked ziti, made with the Trinity of southern vegetables, tiny beef and sausage meatballs, a tomato-based sauce with Italian sausage and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.
A slightly southernized version of baked ziti, made with the Trinity of southern vegetables, tiny beef and sausage meatballs, a tomato-based sauce with Italian sausage and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

Southernized Baked Ziti

While baked ziti may not be traditional southern fare, it's a popular dish that goes a long way to feeding a crowd of folks and y'all know I'm gonna have to southernize it just a little bit!

Actually, where I grew up here along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, not only do we have amazing access to fresh seafood, but because of our history and our military bases, bringing people here from literally all over the world, we are so fortunate to also have a large influx of a variety of cuisines in our area.

Coming up, many of my friends were in Air Force families and I spent a lot of time on the base with them - at the teen clubs ... and later the NCO and Officer's Clubs - hello handsome pilots in USAF flight suits - and the base swimming pools, marina, bowling alley, and stomping around base housing - even though I was a "civilian."

I might as well have had a military issued dependent ID! Of course, that was bittersweet too, because friends would come and go as their dads would get orders for the next base and the next town. Not impossible to believe I ended up marrying a military man, is it?

I managed to wrangle up more than a few invitations to dinner back in those days too since I often found myself away from home at supper time. I can remember one of my friends having ziti pretty regularly at the hand of her Italian mama and boy did I love it!

Now... to be clear... as usual when I make a dish that's not especially regional for where I live, I don't pretend by any stretch of the imagination for my version to be authentic, so this is just my slightly Southernized interpretation of a ziti seasoned with The Trinity.

A true Italian baked ziti requires the preparation of a Sunday Gravy, a red sauce usually made with fresh Roma tomatoes and tiny meatballs made from a variety of meats from the beef, veal, and pork family.

Here's how I make mine.

Typically when I make this dish, I use a leftover spaghetti meat sauce I've stored up in the freezer, but your favorite commercial sauce will also work just fine. Just make sure that it's a quality sauce! You'll need around 4 to 5 cups of sauce in total. It's easy enough to make up a quick meat sauce too though.

In a large skillet, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Add a basic trinity - onion, green pepper and celery. Cook until softened but not brown, add the garlic and cook another minute. Remove the sausage from the casings and add to skillet, breaking up the meat to fine crumbles. Cook over medium to medium-high heat until lightly browned; drain off any excess fat. Using kitchen shears, roughly chop the tomatoes in the can, and add those along with the Italian seasoning to the skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let cook for about 30 minutes. Remove 2 cups of the sauce and set aside.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil and generously salt. Cook the pasta just to al dente according to package directions; drain. Add the ziti to the remaining sauce and combine well. Sometimes I use plain ziti, sometimes I use ridged, just depends on what the store had! Taste, add salt and pepper, and adjust seasoning as needed and set aside.

While it's very good with just the meat sauce, when I have time, I like to include meatballs also. These may be made ahead to be at the ready. Combine 1/2 pound of ground beef with 1/2 pound of Italian sausage removed from the casings. To that I add 1/2 cup of dry bread crumbs, 2 large eggs, 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder, 2 teaspoons of dried parsley, salt and pepper and 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan.

Combine and form into tiny meatballs, about the size of a cherry tomato. Bake in a preheated 400 degree F oven for 10 minutes.

From there it's just layering. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large oblong 4 quart baking dish, add half of the ziti mixture.

Dollop the ricotta on top of the pasta and top with slices of fresh mozzarella, or use shredded if that's what you have. Reserve one cup or enough slices of the mozzarella for the top.

Then sprinkle 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese evenly over the top of that.

Add half of the meatballs.

Dot top with 1 cup of the reserved tomato sauce mixture.

Smear it around.

Add the remaining ziti mixture and top with the remaining meatballs and the remaining sauce.

Add another layer of mozzarella and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese evenly over the top of that.

Cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil and place a baking sheet on the rack below as insurance for any spillover. Bake at 350 degrees F for 50 to 60 minutes or until bubbly. Uncover, sprinkle the top with the remaining mozzarella cheese and return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes, or until casserole is bubbly and center is hot.

For more of my favorite pasta recipes, visit my page on Pinterest!

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Posted by on October 3, 2009
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