Several years ago, Tony and I hosted a weekly radio show, which included a regular segment called the “Hotdish Hot Seat,” and every week we would feature a different hotdish recipe submitted by one of our listeners. One week, our neighbors joined us in the hot seat and shared a recipe that has become one of our family’s all-time favorite easy meals: Baked Ziti Casserole.
Having grown up in Toronto, Tony was unfamiliar with the regional culinary category that is the vast world of hotdish, and has pretty much shied away from it as a rule. But, while this field may include such dubious specialties as tuna fish hotdish, tater tot hotdish and Fritos hotdish (a personal favorite of mine at any respectable church potluck), the very concept of hotdish could also include lasagna, manicotti and other Italian specialties that are baked “al forno” (in the oven).
A basic hamburger hotdish, or what Tony argues should more accurately be called ground beef hotdish, typically consists of elbow macaroni noodles, tomato sauce, hamburger meat, and some kind of shredded cheese. Some recipes call for a little bit of fresh onion and garlic while others might simply use onion and garlic powders, and some choose to forego this added flavoring altogether. But the core ingredients of pasta, meat sauce and cheese tend to make up the quintessential hotdish.
This week’s recipe is no exception, but due to its inclusion of authentic Italian ingredients like fresh mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, as well as Italian sausage and fresh herbs, Tony has elevated its status to “deluxe hotdish” or what most of us would call a casserole.
The original version of this recipe came from the Food Network Kitchens, and we have made very few changes over the years. We have opted to use mild Italian sausage instead of spicy, and rather than removing the meat from the sausage casing, and then crumbling it, we prefer to use ground sausage which is easier to find fresh in our local stores.
This casserole features ziti noodles, which are smooth tubes of pasta about two inches long, with a smooth surface that makes them ideal for hotdish. An easy sausage marinara sauce is made from scratch, which can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen until ready to use. I will often double the batch and freeze half of it for later use.
Sprigs of fresh thyme and basil are added to the sauce as it cooks, and then discarded. I haven’t tried dried herbs for this recipe as I feel that fresh is best in this case, but I do end up with a fair amount left over. The basil I can always use before it spoils, but I wash and dry the thyme sprigs, wrap them in plastic and freeze in a plastic bag for up to 2 months.
Half of the mozzarella and parmesan cheese are mixed into the meat sauce, while the remaining half is used to cover the pasta before baking.
Baked ziti casserole is a perfect choice when you need to make a meal for someone in need, and I have brought it to many a new mother, grieving family or sick relative. It freezes beautifully and is hearty enough to serve with a light salad and good, crusty bread. Kids love it, and our ten-year-old son, Giovanni, summed it up best.
“Baked ziti has all the good Italian tastes – meat, cheese, pasta and sauce. It’s a really good hotdish that your family will enjoy forever.”
Baked Ziti Casserole
Gently adapted from a Food Network Kitchens recipe
Serves: 6 to 8
1 pound dried ziti pasta
3 1/2 cups sausage marinara sauce, recipe follows
1 pound fresh mozzarella, half cut into 1/2-inch cubes and half thinly sliced
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 1 to 2 tablespoons kosher salt and boil pasta until al dente, tender but still slightly firm. Drain pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process if not using immediately.
Return the pasta to the pot and toss with the meat sauce, cubed mozzarella, ½ cup Parmesan cheese, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Transfer pasta mixture to an oiled 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Layer the top of the pasta with the mozzarella slices and and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup Parmesan. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly, about 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.
Sausage Marinara Sauce
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mild Italian sausage
1/4 medium onion, diced (about 3 tablespoons)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28 oz. can whole, peeled, canned tomatoes in puree, (3 ½ cups), roughly chopped
Sprig fresh thyme
Sprig fresh basil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and the herb sprigs and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
Remove and discard the herb sprigs. Stir in the salt and season with pepper, to taste. Use now or store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.