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BAKED ZITI 
Baked ziti is comprised of three components; sauce, filling (much like a stuffed shell or ravioli filling) and cooked pasta. These are assembled after being prepared, then baked before serving. The final result is reminiscent of lasagna, but much easier and faster to prepare. It's sure to become your family's weeknight favorite!

Preparation and Assembly:

1 lb. ziti pasta, cooked al denté (to the tooth)
2-3 tablespoons Parmesan or Romano, for sprinkling
olive oil, to drizzle on top before baking

Prepare sauce (following directions below) at least one hour in advance.

Stir together ingredients for Ricotta filling mixture (recipe found below).

Cook ziti according to directions on package, watching carefully (do not overcook). Drain pasta and return to pan.

Add sauce to ziti in pan, continuing to stir and adding additional sauce as needed to coat well.

Butter the bottom of an oven-proof casserole (or a lasagne dish) and spread cooked ziti in buttered casserole.

Spread a layer of the ziti in the bottom of the casserole dish, then cover with a layer of the Ricotta filling. Stir the rest of the filling in with the remaining pasta, stirring very lightly, leaving chunks here and there.

Spread the pasta mixture in the casserole dish and top with sauce, enough to cover. Sprinkle with 3-4 tablespoons Parmesan or Romano cheese. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil.

Bake in a preheated 400°F until cheese is bubbly and the whole house takes on the aroma of a pizzeria (10-15 minutes).

Note: Have fresh mozzarella? Float a few thin slices of fresh mozzarella on the top just before baking for an extra treat!

Sauce:

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large Vidalia or Sweet Spanish onions, thinly sliced
6-7 whole cloves garlic, peeled
1 chopped shallot (optional)
1 lb ground pork or Italian sausage meat (casings removed)
3/4 lb ground beef or veal
1 red bell pepper, chopped and seeded
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon each basil and oregano flakes
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar or 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 large can (24-28 oz) whole peeled tomatoes
1 large can (24-28 oz) Hunt's Tomato Puree
1 bay leaf
1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper, salt to taste

In a large heavy bottom skillet, saute ground meats with thinly sliced onions until the onions are very lightly browned, adding whole cloves of garlic just as onions begin to color. Turn garlic over once or twice, and when it begins to toast lightly, mash into the oil with the tines of a fork. Add the chopped bell pepper, then stir in the hot pepper, basil and oregano; saute until the meat begins to brown. Use a tablespoon to remove some of the extra fat, if desired (if you do this, add an extra tablespoon olive oil after doing so).

Stir in vinegar, then the can of whole tomatoes. Add bay leaf and black pepper.

Cooks Note: Have any salami, sopresatta, or prosciutto? You can add these to the saucepan to add much flavor to the sauce - ends (or even proscuitto bones) are fine. Parmesan or Romano cheese rinds also can be used. Remove (along with the bay leaf) when the sauce is done.

Don't allow the sauce to boil; just simmer over low heat. After 30 minutes, add the can of Hunt's tomato puree. Add salt to taste and adjust seasonings. Simmer 15 more minutes or until sauce thickens as desired.

Ricotta Filling Mixture:

1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 lb shredded full milk mozzarella
1 lb full milk Ricotta
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)

In a bowl, mix thoroughly the Ricotta, shredded mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and minced parsley. Add freshly and coarsely ground black pepper (and optionally, nutmeg).

Variations: Can be prepared using various pastas, wide egg noodles work well but be sure not to overcook. Or fill large shells with the filling mixture and proceed as above. Spinach can be substituted for parsley in the filling; thinly sliced salami can also be added to the filling.

If you have any leftover filling, mix it with thinly sliced Italian cold cuts; brush a pita bread with olive oil and grill with fresh mozzarella cheese for an instant calzone!

Enough for about 4 servings.

Submitted by: CM
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 Rating: 4.5 / 5 - Reviews: 15
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