The night before I went to the hospital to have this little nugget, in one last burst of frenetic nesting — a tornado of focused, effective energy I sorely miss in these early months — I decided to do something so practical, I’m still patting myself on the back for it: I made a big volume of lazy baked ziti and divide it into three dishes, two that went into the freezer. I have not been this productive or effective since.
I’ve said this before, but there’s honestly very little reason you need to cook in New York City. You can get everything and anything you want, even healthier fare, delivered hot, often at a reasonable price with no advanced planning. So, if you’re going to be crazy like me and cook, you’ve got to have another reason to do it. Previously, I’d made the argument that a really great reason to do so is out of inherent persnicketiness; to pick the dish nobody else makes the way you like it and set out to master it at home, so you can eat what you want most of all. But upon coming home from the hospital with this easily-reheated, unequivocally comforting and loved by the whole family dish in the freezer, I found a new reason: normalcy. Sure, we’d upended my son’s life with an invader, sure, nothing would ever be exactly the same again, but there we were, sitting at the same table with the same people at 6 p.m. a few days after she was born, eating the same food we had a few days before she was born, and it kind of felt like we might just pull this whole thing off. (And we did again! Like, two months later, oof.)
For someone with a lot of opinions about baked ziti — down with baked ricotta! down with jarred sauce! — it’s rather rude that I’ve never shared the version I make when I actually make it. It’s spectacularly simple and lazy, just like me most nights, and it makes what always feels like a truckload, if a truckload = definitely three dinners for three nights for three people, and then some. It’s not hideously rich, nor is it abstemious. It’s quite flexible, should you choose to opt out of meat and add more vegetables. And while I still have not come around to the idea of baking ricotta into a pasta dish — the texture, it gets weird, I just can’t — I absolutely adore having a great big dollop on the side, cold, fresh and slightly rich, the way it was always meant to be.* But enough about the practicality, the texture, the greens and all the feels, let’s talk about what really matters: how are the corners? Tell me about the edges! And the answer is: I will not. I do not share them, so don’t even ask.
My Old-School Baked Ziti
A few notes: To make this without meat, as I’m not personally into meat substitutes, I would use a pound or so of sliced mushrooms instead to make this vegetarian. To freeze, you can freeze this unbaked and once defrosted, bake it in the oven as directed. You could also freeze it after baking, and just defrost and rewarm it, but that leads to softer noodles because they get warmed/cooked an extra time. Finally, if you really really like those crispy edges (I do!), I find if you use a round or oval dish and ziti noodles (with straight ends) vs. penne noodles (which usually have angled ends), it especially leaves jagged edges, more prone to crisping. It also helps to just pour the pasta mix into the dish, not press it into the corners.
Glug of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped small
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground beef or Italian sausage, casings removed
28-ounce can whole tomatoes with juices, chopped by you, or crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1 pound pasta, cooked al dente and drained
3/4 pound mozzarella, coarsely grated
2/3 cup finely grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
1/4 pound (4 ounces) baby spinach or a few handfuls of another green, cut into thin ribbons
To serve: Dollops of your favorite ricotta and slivers of basil leaves, if desired
Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Cook pasta until quite al dente, or 2 minutes less than the suggested cooking time. (Please. It will keep cooking in the sauce, then in the oven and mushy pasta makes me sad.) Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain pasta.
Heat large sauté pan — if yours is ovenproof, you can even use it as you final baking vessel — over medium heat. Coat with glug of olive oil, and heat oil. Add meat and cook with onion, garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and salt over medium-high heat for 6 to 8 minutes or until meat is browned; stirring frequently. If you’re using plain ground beef versus sausage meat, you’re going to really want to season this well. Don’t be shy with the salt and pepper.
Add crushed tomatoes and stir to combine. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. If it’s become quite thick, stir in reserved pasta water. Add spinach and cook until wilted, just another minute. Stir in drained pasta and heat together for one minute.
Pour half of pasta mixture into a 9×13-inch baking dish, lasagna pan, or other 3-quart baking vessel (or divide among smaller ones, if you’d like to freeze some off). Sprinkle with half of each cheese. Pour remaining pasta and sauce over, and finish with remaining cheese. Bake in heated oven for 30 minutes.
If you wish, you can run the dish under your broiler for a minute or two for an extra-bronzed lid right before serving.