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Baked Pasta & Cooking In Between Seasons

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Saturday morning, we woke up to snow.  Considering the weak winter we’ve been experiencing, it qualified as a blizzard in our minds.  Heavy snowflakes swirled in the wind, with the consistency that promised a few hours of the good stuff.  It stuck, mostly, but by late afternoon it was gone.  Sunday by noon the temperatures were flirting with low 60s, and we were driving with the windows down to the grocery store.  Jason was in just a t-shirt and I was enjoying how good it feels to release my feet from the prison of boots and tights to breath in nothing but a pair of Toms.

When the weather is in such a constant state of change, figuring out what to cook for Sunday dinner can be a challenge.  When I am writing my meal plan on a cold Saturday morning, pot roast sounds great.  By sunny Sunday afternoon, the idea of slow cooking sounds downright oppressive.  But still, it’s not warm enough nor is there good enough produce for an excellent salad or dinner of cured meats and fruit.  What I have found that works nicely, however, is baked pasta.

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Baked pasta gives you the best of both seasons, winter and almost not winter (a period of time long enough in Ohio to qualify as a season), by providing a hearty meal that involves a nice spell of time in the oven, while also allowing you to infuse the dish with some brightness that speaks to a warmer future.  Last weekend I made Ina Garten’s crispy shells and cauliflower, which has a cheerful topping of bread crumbs, parmesan, and lemon zest.  It’s not heavy on cream or cheese sauce, which makes it a little more refreshing than maybe a big dish of macaroni and cheese better suited for winter.  The ricotta and lemon take the lead, and the shells get nice and crusty in the oven.  It’s best enjoyed sitting on the floor with a glass of cheap white wine.

Today I decided to make J. Kenji López-Alt’s baked ziti.  I had a big can of San Marzano tomatoes in my cupboard that had been staring at me for a few weeks, as well as some basil that was starting to darken.  Jungle Jim’s sells this wonderful made in house ricotta, of which I had taken two  (okay three) free samples of on the previous week’s shopping trip, and therefore felt inclined to actually purchase some to make up for my greediness.  An unattended sample tray at the grocer is not something I am capable of resisting, especially after a beer and no lunch.

I am normally a clean as I go kind of cook, almost to a fault.  Okay, definitely to a fault.  I have eaten dinner cold as a result of my compulsive need to tidy after cooking, and my favorite taco is actually a taco bowl of all the leftover ingredients that I’ve collected on my plate and then enjoy after I’ve done the dishes.  But today I could not fret over tidying as I had limited time to crank out a red sauce and assemble the baked ziti before Jason left for his hockey game.  One of the best parts of baked ziti is that it gives Jason and I an excuse to do our best Anthony Soprano impressions, yelling “Hey Carm!  We got any bake zeet in the freezer?”  Never gets old.

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I was only mildly cranky as I let the dishes pile up and also made the rash decision to simultaneously deep clean our HydroFlasks while the ziti baked, flicking baking powder paste all over my hoodie and the kitchen.  Mostly I was contented by the warm weather and the wonderful smell of red sauce, as well as open access to my own big container of ricotta.  It’s a relatively easy recipe, albeit a messy and time consuming one, but in a very fun way.  You get to mix up the red sauce with the ricotta and cream, watching it change from a deep red to an almost off putting shade of pink.  The pasta is not cooked, but soaked, before being tossed with the sauce and cheese.  I kept snacking on the soaked, half softened pasta, and remembering how often as a kid I ate raw spaghetti.  My standards have apparently not changed much when I’m hungry.

Somehow I managed to snap a few haphazard shots of the final dish, scooped up a plateful for myself and for Jason, and then enjoyed it deeply with little thought of the disaster in the kitchen. It’s fantastically saucy, and one of the best examples of how good ugly food can be.  The ricotta and mozzarella make it taste fresh, not overcooked or heavy.  My basil was pretty sad looking, but I managed to find a few leaves that still had some life in them and they brightened things up as well.  Best of all I have half of it waiting in a disposable pan in the freezer, and if I can manage more self-control than I have at the sample station at the grocery store then I will save it for our first night back after our vacation, when exhaustion and hunger are both high and my bank account is low.

You can find the recipe for J. Kenji López-Alt’s baked ziti here, and I also highly recommend his massively beautiful cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.

Happy eating.

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