Since the thought of another pile of paper to manage makes me cringe, I don’t keep a file of recipe clippings for the future. I can’t remember, then, what prompted me to pull this recipe from Mark Bittman’s column in the New York Times a few years ago, but some part of me must have known that his baked ziti would become my most popular dish.
Unsophisticated and absurdly easy to whip up, baked ziti presents difficulty only to those of us who have trouble managing our greed. Since the measurements are so round, I don’t even have to check the recipe before I go to the store: 1 pound sausage, 1 pound pasta, 1 pound cheese, 1 can tomatoes. It freezes beautifully, which makes it the nicest of emergency dinners for nights when you’re too busy to cook but want something nicer than a tangle of sad pad thai.
Fancy fresh mozzarella works, but I think this is one place where the shredded supermarket variety does very well. San Marzano tomatoes and real Parmigiano-Reggiano, too, should probably be saved for another use. Most of the ziti’s flavor comes from the sausage, so that’s what needs to be excellent. I have never made it with bulk sausage, as he recommends; I just slice links open, remove the casing, and break the meat up in my skillet. Half spicy and half sweet Italian pork sausage is my favorite combination.
Salt and pepper
1 pound Italian sausage, preferably bulk
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 28-ounce can tomatoes, chopped, with liquid
1 pound ziti or other large cut pasta
1 pound mozzarella, grated or chopped
Olive oil or butter as needed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, optional
Bring large pot of water to boil; salt it. Heat oven to 400°F.
Distribute meat in large skillet over medium high heat and cook, undisturbed, until browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Stir and then cook another 2 minutes undisturbed. Add the onion and garlic. Lower heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft; add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer while cooking pasta, stirring and seasoning with salt and pepper to taste; do not let sauce become too thick.
Cook pasta until just tender; it should still be too hard to eat. Drain it (do not shake the colander; allow some water to cling to the noodles) and toss it with the sauce and half the mozzarella. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and spoon mixture into it. Top with remaining mozzarella and the Parmesan if using. Bake until top is browned and cheese bubbly, 20 to 30 minutes.