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A first culinary crusade: Taking baked ziti for a spin

February 7, 2009
By ALEC RADER, Staff Writer

"Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as necessary," said French philosopher Voltaire. I could not agree more with his words and that is why I have been given a chance to share with our readers my love of food.

As early as I can remember I've loved cooking. Watching my parents in the kitchen measuring, pouring, cracking eggs and sprinkling seasonings continually amazed me. How could ingredients, that were unrelated to each other in the mind of a 7-year-old, make something so delicious, as they often did? Soon enough, I found out.

Helping make dinner is something I still enjoy when I go home. The kitchen was always a place of teamwork and imagination. Cooking was even a time when my sister and I would work together without bickering. From the time I began cooking regularly I learned that food you make for yourself tastes better than food made for you.

Of all the dishes served in our home, pasta was the most common. In a giant stock pot, my father would simmer tomato, ground beef, garlic and onions for hours. One of the first tasks I remember being given was rolling meatballs. A signal batch of meatballs was never the same as the next, but all of them were good. My mother would occasionally spend hours making crepes in our iron skillet to fill with her manicotti cheese mixture; or kneeding dough, flouring it and running it, seemingly endlessly, through through her Atlas pasta maker.

While enjoying pasta isn't quite as complicated as making it fresh, choosing a dish to make may be. From the choice of sauces-meat, alfredo or marinara-to the shapes of the pasta-radiatore, fettucini to penne regatta-paring the right shape to the right sauce is as much of an adventure as creating the dish.

With our left over sauce and rigatoni, my father would layer a casserole dish with pasta, sauce and mozzarella then bake it until the gooey amalgamation was brought forth. This use of leftovers inspired me to create a fresh version. The common name is baked ziti but the use of ziti isn't a requirement.

Fact Box

Baked Ziti

Ingredients

1 lb. Italian sausage (hot, mild or sweet)

1 lb. Breakfast sausage links

1/2 lb. Mozzarella cheese (shredded)

1 jar Meat pasta sauce

1/2 lb. Rigatoni

Directions

In a large skillet, fry the sausage links on medium until browned. Remove and use the same skillet to fry the Italian sausage, on medium until browned. After the links have cooled, slice into half-inch pieces.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Add salt, pasta and cook until less than al dente (approximately seven minutes).

When pasta is finished cooking, drain all but half a cup of the water. In the pot, add the cooked sausage. Stir in sauce until all the meat and pasta is coated.

In a baking dish, layer the sausage/pasta mix with the cheese and remaining sauce. Cover the top with sauce and a final layer of cheese. Bake on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly.

The History

Pasta and noodles are so similar that pinning down their individual origins is difficult. The myth surrounding Italian pasta is that Marco Polo brought the idea from his trip to the Orient. According to "The Oxford Companion to Food," by Alan Davidson, Polo did not return to Europe until 1298. The first account of dry pasta was recorded nearly 20 years earlier in 1279.

An item listed as part of the estate of a man in Genoa was "a basket full of macaroni." Davidson says "clearly this was a durable item, or it would not have been listed. This means that it must have been dry pasta." The inclusion of macaroni in the man's estate lends evidence to the case of pasta's established place in Italian life before Polo.

The traditional red, meat sauce originated with the name ragu and was not the tomatoey concoction we know today. Ragu, created before the advent of ground beef, only had a "light tomato flavour." Strips of beef were used as the main ingredient. The first accounts of ragu have it being used in Bologna in baked dishes. Spaghetti alla Bolognese (spaghetti with ragu), received its name from the city of Bologna.

The Recipe

My adapted version of baked ziti does not use ziti but rigatoni. While the shape is almost exactly the same, ziti has a smooth exterior that doesn't hold onto the ragu as well as the ridged exterior of rigatoni. All of the other ingredients are also interchangeable. If you prefer penne, use penne. If you don't like sausage, you can use ground beef. The best part about cooking is that nearly everything you can cook, you can customize to suit your tastes.

Here I list the ingredients I use when I make my baked ziti. This is a very unfriendly vegetarian dish. However, if you would like to make it veggie-friendly simply replace the meat sauce with mushroom and the sausage with roasted vegetables such as zucchini and/or eggplant. I made this meal for less than $20 and it feeds a family of four with some leftovers.

 
 

 

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