Monday, February 23, 2009

Meatless Monday: Baked Ziti

I think, by now, you're all well aware of my love for dishes that can be thrown together in a baking pan and popped in the oven (see here, here, here, aaaand here). A lazy cook? Sure, probably most of the time. BUT, not always. Sometimes the "throwing together" component of cooking some of these dishes is pretty time-consuming and/or labor-intensive.

The ultimate criteria I use in choosing any of the baked (or other types of) dishes I promote here is simply - "Is it delicious?" This next recipe passed that test with flying colors, . . . which, frankly, I found surprising. In fact, I didn't think this was going to be a recipe I would end up sharing with you. "Why?" you ask. The ingredient list. It calls for substituting cottage cheese for ricotta cheese (!). As I contemplated making it, I could just hear a long line of my Italian ancestors threatening to roll over in their graves. But, Cooks Illustrated has not steered me wrong yet, and my husband was quick to explain the cooking science behind the recipe that made the cheese swap make sense (it translates to better moisture levels).

Baked Ziti

1 pound ziti or other short, tubular pasta
1 pound whole milk cottage cheese
8 ounces low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese , cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

5 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 5 teaspoons)

1 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil salt ground black pepper

Because of U.S. copyright laws, I can reproduce the ingredients list for you but not CI's version of the cooking instructions. So, I will paraphrase here for you:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook pasta 1/2 normal time. Drain pasta and and leave in colander or set aside in a bowl.
3. As pasta cooks, heat garlic in a pan with oil for a couple of minutes. Then add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano. Simmer until thick. Remove from heat and add 1/2 cup basil, sugar, salt, and pepper.
4. Also, as pasta cooks, combine cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup Parmesan together in a bowl.
5. Combine cornstarch and heavy cream. Cook 3-4 minutes in pasta pot. Remove from heat, add cottage cheese mixture, 3/4 cup mozzarella, and 1 cup tomato sauce, and stir. Add pasta back in and mix.
6. Pour pasta mixture into 9 x 13 baking dish. Pour remaining tomato sauce over the top. Sprinkle what's left of the mozzarella and Parmesan evenly over the top. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
7. Remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes.
8. Remove from oven, let set and cool a bit, sprinkle with remaining basil, and serve.

CI advises against using shredded mozzarella because they think it can result in a rubbery crust. I still think I would prefer it to the mini cubes deposited randomly throughout the dish. I prefer my cheese more evenly distributed and in every bite, so I'm going to buck their system and try it my way next time.

CI also claims they use cottage cheese because the pasta wicks away the moisture in the dish, leaving the ricotta "grainy and broken." Personally, I think that can be avoided by using enough sauce in the dish in the first place. BUT, I will acknowledge that the cottage cheese substitution is a good solution too, especially if you don't like saucy dishes (but who doesn't like a saucy dish?!).

Anyway, long-story-short, I thought the dish turned out really yummy, and I didn't miss the ricotta one bit; probably wouldn't have noticed it wasn't ricotta if someone else had made it for me. So, go ahead - see if you can fool someone yourself!

Got any favorite vegetarian or vegan recipes?? Please share!

Other Meatless Monday posts

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