The weather is starting to turn. The temperatures are dropping and you can definitely feel Fall in the air. And for me Fall means cranking up the oven. I love grilling and I love dining al fresco but there is nothing like the smell of a pot roast slowing cooking in the oven. The aromas throughout the house make you want to curl up in front of the fire place with a glass of wine and just be glad you’re alive. I guess that’s why so many of these Fall dishes are called comfort food. They make you feel warm and cozy inside, even while they’re roasting away in the oven.
And this time of year I am also scrambling to figure out how to use my tomato crop. I never know from year to year how my tomato plants will fare but this year, due to the great growing conditions, I got a bumper crop. I was also fortunate this year. Just as the zucchini production began to wane the tomato production came into full force. And there are only so many salads you can make. So with all of these tomatoes I was on the hunt for a recipe that would not only warm the house but help me use a bunch of them. When I saw that this recipe called for 28 ounces of crushed tomatoes I thought to myself, heck – no need to buy a can, I can cut up what I have and that will do the trick. And did it ever. I got a delicious casserole and was able to use quite a few of my tomatoes in the bargain.
I will say I was a little surprised at how long it took to assemble this casserole. But I think the main reason was that I hand chopped all of the tomatoes and that took the bulk of the time. I was also able to use some of my remaining fresh basil so that was a plus. I substituted bacon for pancetta (our local grocery store was out of it) and that worked well too. So all in all, a flavorful recipe that helped me use some of my garden bounty. Here is my recipe rating and lessons learned:
Recipe Rating: A- Great comfort food recipe: This a such a good recipe on a variety of levels – not only does it taste great but being able to use garden tomatoes and basil was definitely a plus. If you don’t have the tomatoes or the time to chop them just use a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes. That will work equally as well and will be much quicker.
Lesson Learned 1- You can substitute bacon for pancetta: You probably know already that when you don’t have or can’t find pancetta you can use bacon as a substitute. But did you know the difference between them? Both are made from pork belly and both are cured for a length of time. The major difference is that bacon is smoked after it’s cured and pancetta is not. So using bacon as a substitute will add a slightly smokier flavor to the dish. Needless to say, I used bacon and it turned out great. And I will definitely try this using pancetta to see if can discern a noticeable difference.
Lesson Learned 2 – How to perfectly align the stovetop cooking time: I found that if you start out by boiling the water for the ziti and then start the other ingredients right after you put the ziti into boiling water you can align the cooking times of all the ingredients. Keep in mind that this means that all the chopping and non-cooking prep is done prior to this, but once that’s done both the non-pasta and pasta ingredients cook within a similar timeframe. That allows you to do the final casserole assembly easily.
Lesson Learned 3 – The fresher the ingredients the better: Granted this is the first time I tried this recipe but I think the garden fresh tomatoes and basil made the flavor superb. I realize that having garden tomatoes in most areas is a once a year treat. If you have to use canned tomatoes I would recommend San Marzano tomatoes as they are known for their sweet flavor. At least don’t substitute dried basil for fresh basil in this recipe. If you don’t have basil in your garden buy some fresh at the grocery store. It will make a difference.
Lesson Learned 4 – The wonder of queso mozzarella: In the grocery store with the ethnic cheeses I found something called queso mozzarella. Using it I found it gives a creamier texture to recipes calling for mozzarella cheese. What I do is blend half queso and half regular shredded mozzarella when recipes calls for mozzarella. I think it melts better. And keep in mind, any prepackaged shredded cheese has an ingredient in it that keeps the shredded cheese from sticking together. That same ingredient also prevents it from melting as thoroughly as freshly shredded cheese. So the queso mozzarella helps to combat that. It’s very soft and takes no time whatsoever to grate.
Lesson Learned 5 – Take the time to grate fresh parmesan: We all love the convenience of pre grated parmesan cheese. I’ve used it over and over again in recipes, that is until I discovered the difference between packaged and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Freshly grated parmesan melts better and is bolder in flavor. And it is very easy to do, especially if your have a mini-prep processor like I do. All you have to do is cut the parmesan into small pieces, put it in the mini-prep and process it until is is grated. If you haven’t tried it you really should. It makes a noticeable difference.
Lesson Learned 6 – Using a garnish: Garnishes are just that, something that dresses up the look of a dish but not essential to the recipe. I love Italian parsley for this purpose. I grew Italian parsley in a container on my deck this summer and it grew like a weed. I loved being able to go and snip off a bunch when I needed to. That way I could control the amount I had versus buying a big bunch at the grocery store and throwing half of it away. Italian parsley is great as a garnish. Simply chop a little and sprinkle it on top of a dish and voila, it looks like the work of a professional chef. Never underestimate the power of a garnish. It can make a dish look fancy with no effort at all!
If you’re like me and you like casseroles you will love this dish. It’s also reheats well and is great for leftovers. Warm your house up with this one. You won’t regret it!
Baked Ziti With Sausage and Pancetta
12 ounces of ziti pasta
4 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 large onion, diced
2-3 cloves of garlic (to taste)
1 pound ground Italian sausage
1 cup dry red wine
1 can of diced tomatoes (28 ounces), or diced garden tomatoes
Generous handful of fresh basil (approx. 1/2 cup)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup mozzarella cheese, divided (1/2 cup queso and 1/2 cup shredded preferred)
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 Tbs. Italian seasoning
Italian parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Do all the prep work first: slice the bacon into lardons, chop the onion, mince the garlic, and grate the parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the ziti and cook according to the package directions. Meanwhile in a large pan cook the pancetta for about 3 minutes (you don’t want to crisp it). Add the onion and sauté for an additional 3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant (30 seconds to 1 minute). Add the sausage and cook until the meat is no longer pink. Add the wine and cook for approximately 3 minutes. Use the wine to deglaze the pan. Stir in the tomatoes and basil. Reduce the heat and cook for only a couple of minutes.
Drain the pasta and add it to the pan. Stir in the ricotta and half of mozzarella. Put into a 9×13 baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the remaining mozzarella and parmesan. Sprinkle Italian seasoning on top of the cheese.
Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes or until the casserole is bubbly and the cheese is nicely browned.