Thursday, September 6, 2012

Healthier Baked Ziti

You may have noticed a theme in my blog. I love excuses to combine pasta and cheese. My new favorite way to do this is in baked ziti. Baked ziti is essentially part mac and cheese and part lasagna--the best of both worlds. Just like macaroni, the tubular pasta traps the cheesy sauce, and it oozes out when you bite it. You get all the flavors of lasagna, but you don't have to fuss over laying out lasagna noodles and evenly distributing layers. Just mix everything together.

I based this recipe on one from Cook's Illustrated, one of my favorite recipe sources. They have a similar philosophy to mine--they test and tweak recipes extensively (although they are much more thorough than me), and they are not afraid to think of creative improvements to traditional dishes. One of the unique things about their recipe is that rather than just mixing everything together, you mix half of the tomato sauce with the pasta, and pour the other half over the top, so every bite gets tomatoey goodness, plus an extra blanket of rich, unadulterated tomato sauce. It adds a nice flavor contrast. Their recipe calls for cottage cheese, which they claim is better than ricotta in this recipe. I have to admit, I thought cottage cheese in pasta sounded weird, and I doubted them, so the first time I made it, I used ricotta. It was fine, but not spectacular. The ricotta got dry and a little mealy. The second time, I tried the cottage cheese, and they were totally right--it is so much better. The sauce was moister, cheesier, and more flavorful, all with less fat than ricotta!

Of course, the next time I made it I had to personalize it. Believe me, though, the recipe is fantastic as is. I added spinach to get a serving of veggies in there and extra garlic (I've noticed that I always prefer about twice as much garlic as they call for). You could brown a pound of ground meat or Italian sausage and add it to the sauce if someone (like my husband) is craving meat. Their recipe called for eggs and a bechamel sauce, but for simplicity, I don't add them. Instead, I just add extra cooking liquid until the consistency is moist enough. The pasta actually ends up creamier and less starchy this way.

Healthier Baked Ziti
14 oz-1 lb ziti or penne pasta. I used whole wheat

Filling
1 28-ounce can marinara sauce or crushed tomatoes, 1/3 of the can reserved for topping (I love Trader Joe's low fat marinara for this)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 lb low-fat cottage cheese
1 lb frozen cut leaf spinach, thawed
12 ounces (or 3 cups) shredded low-fat mozzarella, a few handfuls reserved for topping
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 t Italian seasoning (or 1/2 t dried basil and 1/2 t dried oregano)
1 t t garlic powder
salt and pepper, to taste
crushed red pepper, to taste
2/3 cup pasta cooking liquid to thin (reserve half for mixing in sauce)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large dutch oven, cook pasta in boiling salted water, until just soft but not completely cooked. While that is cooking, mix filling ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

When pasta is ready, reserve some cooking liquid, drain, and return to dutch oven. Mix in the filling ingredients. Pour the pasta and filling mixture into a deep-sided 13x9 baking pan.

Combine reserved cooking liquid with the remaining tomato sauce and spread evenly on top. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until bubbly and heated through. Allow to cool and set a few minutes before serving. Makes 8 hearty servings.