Ziti for my sweetie

Your great-great aunt Eugenia passes away.  The funeral is in the hometown of this 86-year-old genteel lady; Burlington, NC.

Your great-great aunt Carmelita passes away.  The funeral is in the hometown of this 86-year-old gentlewoman; Burlington, NJ.

At each funeral you can be certain of a few things.

Both homes will be jam-packed full of nonsensical knick-knacks and bizarre bric-a-brac.  There will be multiple embarrassing childhood stories told about you by elderly relatives whom you couldn’t pick out of a line-up.  And there’s one phone, a corded land-line, which hangs on a kitchen wall.

After the service there will be enough food to feed a Division 1 football team.  In North Carolina, you can bet your sweet bippy there will be mass quantities of ham biscuits, buckets of sweet tea, and at least three pecan pies.

North of the Mason-Dixon and in all Italian families there’s an alternate edible mainstay of mourning: baked ziti.

Technically, ziti is the name of the pasta shape.  It’s a hollow tube with straight, ridged sides.  The hollow and the ridges catch the sauce.  The larger size holds up to the double cooking process of boiling and baking better than a smaller, thinner noodle.  But it’s still very important to undercook it quite a bit during the boiling stage.

But what’s traditional is not what’s mandatory.

You can use any larger, sturdy pasta.  I like to go to a HomeGoods store, and pick out something fun and novel, like a striped campanelle (trumpet shaped), a beet creste di gallo (large, ridged elbow with a crest), or spinach lumaconi (ridged, snail shell-shaped).

Instead of store-bought sauce, I have a suggestion.  Go to the farmer’s market right before closing time.  Pick up four pounds of orphan tomatoes; you know: the leftover, the misshapen, the bruised.  Marinara made from scratch is easy and tastes so much better.  And it’s so much better for you than processed sauce, which is disturbingly full of sugar and sodium.

These babies have so much love to give…

Oven-roasted marinara

4 pounds tomatoes

1 head garlic

1 yellow onion, chopped

½ cup Marsala or red wine

3 tablespoons basil, cut into ribbons

Olive oil

Salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 400.  Cut cores out of the tomatoes, and halve.  Break garlic head into cloves, but don’t peel.  Place tomatoes cut side up, and garlic cloves onto rimmed sheet pan.  Drizzle with olive oil and generously sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Bake 20 minutes.

While tomatoes are roasting, set a Dutch oven on medium-high and put in a tablespoon of olive oil.  Add onions, season, and sauté until soft and lightly golden.  Turn down to medium.

When tomatoes and garlic are done, slip garlic out of their skins, and put into Dutch oven, along with the tomatoes.  Stir in wine and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Puree everything with an immersion blender.  Thin with water, if necessary.  Simmer for 5-10 minutes.  Take off heat, add basil, and check for seasoning.

Baked “ziti”

Marinara sauce

1 pound pasta

2-8 ounce balls of fresh mozzarella cheese

Olive oil

Kosher salt

Turn oven to 350.  Boil noodles in heavily salted water for half the time the package instructs.  Drain.

Lightly grease a 9X13 and 8X8 pan (or 3 8X8 pans).  In a large bowl, mix sauce and pasta.  Add a lot more than you think you need (the noodles will absorb tons of sauce while baking).  Heat the extra sauce and spoon onto each serving of ziti.

Pour into pans.  Pinch off pieces of mozzarella and drop on top.  Drizzle on a bit of olive oil.  Cover with parchment, then foil.  If you’re freezing, place in freezer at this point. 

Bake at 350 for thirty minutes covered, then uncover and bake 30 more or until browned and bubbly.  Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes. 

Ziti isn’t just for funerals.  Pre-assembled, they’re really convenient for busy week nights.  They’re also perfect for folks who aren’t able to cook for themselves (like new parents or old husbands).

Excuse me? I was told there’d be ziti…?

They freeze really well.  In fact no self-respecting Italian mother has less than two pans of ziti in the freezer at any one moment.  Because you never know when somebody’ll check into the Horizontal Hilton and you’ve got to whip one out.

Thanks for your time.

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