kid-friendly · Recipes

Classic Baked Ziti

I dread the onset of winter with its cold, dark, depressing ways, and anyone with little kids can tell you the havoc daylight saving time wreaks on family sleep schedules. We had an oddly warm fall here in New England; it was 70 degrees out Monday, when I started writing this, and as nice as that felt, I’m ready for the casseroles to start showing up again — even if Mother Nature isn’t. I’ve also been ready to dig into hibernation food for months now!

In that spirit, I’ve made this wonderfully simple Baked Ziti a lot this fall, including for potlucks, Sunday dinner, and for friends with new babies.

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This makes the perfect dish for visiting a newborn: it is comforting, filling, and reheats very easily, and can be eaten with one hand while holding a baby. It can also be frozen if your friends don’t have room to eat it right away. As a bonus, little kids like it, too, which is always an implicit goal of any recipe I post! Georgia simply gobbles this up, and it’s one of Mark’s, favorites, too. Win-win.

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This recipe was inspired by Smitten Kitchen with a few adaptations to make it my own.

Cook time: 30 minutes    Serves: 4-6

Classic Baked Ziti

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound ziti, cooked al dente
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp dried oregano or Italian seasoning (I like Wildtree)
  • 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • a few handfuls of baby spinach
  • 1 cup mozzarella, grated
  • 2/3 cup finely grated pecorino (or parmesan) cheese
  • fresh basil slivers
  • optional: red pepper flakes

DIRECTIONS

To start, preheat your oven to 400 F.

Heat a pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta very al dente, or at least 2 minutes less than the normal cooking time stated on the box. Drain the pasta, reserving half a cup of the cooking water.

Heat a large skillet over  medium and add a swirl of olive oil until warm, then add the meat alongside the onion, garlic, seasonings and a healthy dose of salt and pepper over medium-hihg for up to 8 minutes, or until the beef is browned, stirring often.

Add the crushed tomatoes and stir to combine, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for five minutes. Add in the reserved pasta water and then the spinach, cooking until milted (maybe another minute or two). Here, I like to add in some fresh basil, slivered, and maybe a couple fresh tomatoes from my garden if I need to use them up.

Stir in the drained pasta and mix together. Pour half into a 9×13 glass baking dish or lasagna pan, and sprinkle with half the two cheeses; repeat with another half of the pasta then top with the remaining cheese.

Bake in the heated oven for 30 minutes or until nice and crispy and browned on the edges. You can even run the dish under the broiler for a minute if you’d like it extra crispy! Enjoy warm.

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NOTES:

  • You can also use Italian sausage, casings removed, if you prefer the taste.
  • To cook al dente, shave 2 minutes off the cook time stated on the package of pasta. Taking care not to overcook is essential for this not turning mushy!
  • Seasoning the ground beef well with salt and pepper is essential; it’s less important if you opt for Italian sausage.
  • I like to serve this with more slivers of fresh basil and, if you have it, fresh ricotta. But that’s totally optional!
  • I have never tried this week meat substitutes, but it’s certainly possible. Other good substitutions to make it vegetarian would be mushrooms, beans, or lentils.

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Stay tuned for my first holiday shopping guides soon, and some inspiration for Thanksgiving dinner! I’m so excited Christmas is right around the corner. I basically live for the holidays once Halloween is over every year 🙂 Have a lovely, cozy weekend.

Recipes

Baked Ziti

Heads up — this is a Weight Watchers recipe! I wish I could say it’s because I’m finally losing my last 5 baby pounds, but (typical) it’s because Mark booked a role for the summer that involves several shirtless scenes, so he ran right out and bought a FitBit and is now on a health crusade.

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(I’ll just point out that those crescent roll biscuits you see in the background are not part of the health-food diet.)

This is an easy pasta dish, made more healthful with reduced fat ricotta and mozzarella. You can use ziti, penne or any other tubular pasta that stands up well to being baked. I always undercook the pasta when it’s boiling so that it doesn’t get too soft in the oven. And I find that using canned tomato sauce is just fine as long as it’s a quality brand and ideally organic as well.

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INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound pasta
  • cooking spray for the baking dish
  • 3/4 pound part-skim ricotta
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 4 cups marinara sauce, divided (you could also use diced tomatoes)
  • 1/2 pound shredded part skim mozzarella cheese
  • red pepper flakes (add more or less to your taste)
  • fresh basil for garnish (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350. Prep a casserole dish or any oven-safe baking dish with cooking spray.

Cook pasta according to package directions, taking off the heat a bit early so the pasta doesn’t overcook; drain and rinse under cold water.

While pasta is cooking, combine ricotta, 3 TBSP Parmesan, red pepper flakes (if using; I just added a dash) and 1/3 C marinara sauce in a medium bowl.

To assemble, spoon 1/2 C sauce on the bottom of the casserole dish, add half the cooked pasta, spoon the ricotta mixture over, then spoon remaining sauce on top.

Top with remaining pasta, spoon the rest of the sauce on top, then sprinkle with mozzarella and remaining Parmesan.

Bake until cheese melts and is bubbly, about 20 to 30 minutes. Allow dish to sit for another 10 or 15 minutes before plating.

Optional: garnish with fresh basil ribbons.

If portioned into 12 servings, each one will have a 7 points value for those on Weight Watchers.

We had this with extra sauce on the side, plus some meatballs and Italian sausage and also those yummy biscuits and organic corn from Trader Joe’s. You could also add lean ground beef to the sauce (real or imitation) to make it meatier but still healthful. Simple and satisfying, perfect for Sunday dinner with family.

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Recipes

Traditional Shepherd’s Pie

It’s getting cooler, which makes me think about Fall recipes again. This comforting, home-style Shepherd’s Pie has lean ground beef, chopped onions, creamed corn, sweet corn and mashed potatoes — that’s it. Simple, stick-to-your-ribs fare. I made it last weekend before a visit to Mark’s 90-year-old grandfather, who gets Meals on Wheels because he is legally blind. How depressing! Whenever I can, I bring him a home-cooked meal to enjoy.

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This is an easy one to pull together. The only time-consuming part is the 45 minutes it spends in the oven; if you make it on the weekend or in the evening before bed, it’s ready to go for the next few days. This is one of Mark’s favorites, and has been ever since my Mom taught me how to make it (in miniature ceramic baking dishes) for lunches when I had my first job out of college. By the way, you could do the same thing — just buy those handy single-serving bakers or ramekins and adjust the cooking time as needed.

Start off by coarsely chopping a small onion and cooking it over medium heat in a medium sized skillet until translucent, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. (Is it me, or do my fingers look REALLY pudgy here? Sigh.)

Then you are going to add the pound of lean ground beef into the pan, breaking it up with your spoon and stirring until the meat is just browning. Don’t overcook it, because it will continue to cook through in the oven.

Remove the cooked beef and onions from the heat and get out a large glass baking dish. I like my Anchor Hocking bake n’ take set because it comes with a matching cover and carrying case, which is great for transporting and storing in the fridge (it’s especially handy around the holidays).

Pour the ground beef into the baking dish, spreading out in a very thin, even layer. Don’t be concerned if it just barely covers the bottom of the dish. It’s supposed to be that way.

This is a redundant picture. A certain fuzzy assistant photo-bombed me.

Add the creamed corn next……..

…………followed by the sweet corn.

Now you’re ready to add the mashed potatoes. Full disclosure: I used to make the mashed potatoes from scratch, but one time I cheated, and Mark said “you HAVE to make it this way from now on.” Well…I’m not going to complain about a shortcut tasting better. So from then on, boxed potatoes it is.

Either way you do the potatoes, make sure you add a lot of butter and milk so it stays moist. I find it’s easier to spread the potatoes onto the Shepherd’s Pie in big blobs that you push outward with two forks to cover the whole surface. If you try to drop the whole mess of potatoes into the center and spread outward, you’ll just end up dragging up loose corn and making a mess.

Then, take your hand and just pat it down all over so the potatoes are roughly even in the pan. Anything sticking up will just burn, and you don’t want that.

Cover with foil, pop it in the oven at 350 for about half an hour, then check on it. If it hasn’t browned yet, continue cooking uncovered for about 10 more minutes, checking back frequently so that you take it out when it’s just starting to brown at the edges and bubble up. You don’t, obviously, want to burn it.

If it needs more than 10 minutes, so be it! Just keep an eye on it, and the browning potatoes will tell you when it’s done for your oven. Once it’s not boiling hot anymore, it’s ready to eat! I like it warm, not steaming hot, and it makes unbelievable leftovers. Enjoy.

Shepherd’s Pie

INGREDIENTS

  • About 1 lb. of ground beef (I used 85% lean)
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 can of sweet corn
  • 1 can of creamed corn
  • 1 box of instant mashed potatoes, prepared
  • Milk and butter for the mashed potatoes
  • Olive Oil for sauteeing the beef
  • Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

Chop the onion and saute in a skillet over medium heat until translucent. Season with salt and pepper and add the ground beef. Cook, stirring, until just browned.

Pour the onion-beef mixture into a large glass baking dish. Pour in one can of creamed corn and spread into a thin layer on top of the beef.

Add the can of sweet corn and distribute evenly over the creamed corn layer.

Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare your instant mashed potatoes if not done already.

Top the corn with the potatoes, spreading out in an even layer. Cover with foil and place in the oven.

Cook for half an hour, remove foil and cook 10 minutes uncovered or until the top is browned and bubbling. Enjoy!

Tip: If you are going to reheat this, I would suggest adding a dollop of butter to the top before you put the cooked pie in the fridge. That way, when you pop it in the microwave, the butter will melt and re-energize the potatoes a bit. I highly suggest setting some aside for leftovers if you can — it’s honestly even better the second day.