This dish is made using my homemade tomato sauce. It incorporates mozzarella (shredded and fresh), Parmesan (grated and shaved) and Colby-jack (shredded) all in one casserole. It feeds a lot of people and is great leftover!
You'll end up with enough sauce to prepare the baked ziti in this recipe plus an extra couple of cups to freeze for another use. I like having some homemade sauce in the freezer for a busy weeknight. Just thaw and heat, then cook up some pasta ... and you've got a quick dinner!
Of course, you could prepare this baked ziti using a good-quality tomato sauce, but I truly believe that nothing beats a slow-simmered sauce. What I really love about this sauce is that it allows me to sneak in a good dose of veggies without my kids suspecting a thing!
Yields 8 servings.
FOR THE SAUCE -
1 pound ground beef or Italian sausage
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 cup of button mushrooms, roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons dried Italian herbs
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 heaping tablespoon brown sugar
2 cups fresh spinach, slightly torn
2 cans (26 ounces each) crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
ADDITIONAL INGREDIENTS -
16 ounces ziti pasta
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
4 ounces shredded Colby-jack cheese
Brown meat in a large stock pot set to medium heat. Drain off any excess fat. Add in the onion, bell pepper, mushrooms, carrots, celery and garlic. Allow to "sweat" for about 2 - 3 minutes. Add in the sun-dried tomatoes, bay leaf, dried herbs and cans of crushed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add in brown sugar. Stir to combine, then add in the spinach.
Stir. Cover and allow to simmer on low for an hour. Remove bay leaf and stir in 1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese. Taste and adjust salt, pepper and/or brown sugar, as needed.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare the ziti pasta just a few minutes short of the package-recommended cooking time. Drain.
Pour the pasta into a very large mixing bowl.
Pour all but about 2 cups of sauce over the noodles. (Reserve remaining sauce for freezing and later use.) Add in the fresh mozzarella, shredded mozzarella and shaved Parmesan.
Stir and pour into a greased 9" x 13" casserole dish. Bake loosely covered with foil on 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Remove foil and top with shredded Colby-jack cheese.
Bake for an additional 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Serve with garlic bread.