Two 1lb boxes of Rotini, a Le Creuset full of bolognese, simmered over four hours, and a lot of cheese. That is what it takes to make three 8×8 pans of my spin on baked ziti. Why rotini? It was on sale at Costco and I had six boxes of it.
My three year old was watching one of her favorite people, Pyeer Woman (The Pioneer Woman), who happened to be making her fabulous baked ziti, always a staple item in our freezer. She is really excited about helping these days, which mostly consists of stirring, pouring, and being underfoot, but a friend of mine is home alone with her two little kids for the next two weeks, and another friend just had a baby, so why not make a large vat and deliver some happiness in the form of cheesy (but organic!) pasta?
Normally my bolognese is a mixture of home ground chuck, home ground pork shoulder and veal, but what I had was organic, grass fed beef. So we diced up a large onion, three gigantic carrots (washed but peel ON for nutrients!) and 5 large stalks of celery.
We squirted in some olive oil (yes, it made it into the pot!) and sautéed up the veggies. Meanwhile, we crushed and minced the garlic Korean-style (translate: a LOT of garlic finely minced), and browned up two pounds of organic, grass fed beef (again, thank you Costco for selling way more meat than I think I will ever need).
Whole Foods now sells porcini mushrooms in bulk, so you can get as much or as little as you need. I zipped about 1 C of these dried, earthy, meaty mushrooms in the magic bullet I’ve had since college (I love infomercials….it’s really a problem), and added a cup of hot water from the tea kettle to let it rehydrate. It’s like porcini mushroom tea.
When the veggies were nice and soft with little brown bits of color, I added the minced garlic and stirred until fragrant (about 30-60 seconds), added in one small can of tomato paste, then poured in a tiny single serving white wine, which I find perfect for cooking. I deglazed the pot, which is just fancy for getting all the brown bits off the sides and bottom. It’s called the fond, but the TV chefs tell me it’s where the flavor is, and I know how to follow directions. Usually.
¦NB: There are rarely times when you can use the whole can of tomato paste. I ¦ hate that. I use the recipe amount, usually 2 T, and then the remainder of ¦ the tomato paste sits in the fridge only to become what my husband refers to ¦ as a “science experiment.”
I drained the browned ground beef and poured it into the mixture, along with three 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes and two cans of tomato sauce. It’s what I had on hand.
¦ TIP: You can use any of the combination of canned tomatoes out there: ¦ whole, diced, crushed. It all ends up cooking together and ¦ concentrating its tomato sweet tomato goodness!
I poured in the porcini mushroom “tea”and a couple of parmesan rinds which add nuttiness. I added a couple of handles of dried italian herbs that I rubbed between my hands to release the oils and flavor, and a heaping sprinkle of garlic powder.
¦ TIP: I usually buy parmesan in bulk and cut off the rinds and save them in a ¦ ziptop bag in the freezer for occasions such as these.
Then I let the big guy simmer for 2-8 hours. Within 30-45 minutes I had three whining children around my ankles, so I had to steal some sauce and pour over some pasta for a quick dinner while the rest of it continued to concentrate.
After bath and bed, I boiled a vat of salty water and cooked the rotini, about 3 minutes less than the instructions on the box says to (remember, this will be baked eventually and nobody likes mushy pasta. Unless you are 8 months old and have no teeth. Then it might be okay). I turned off the heat and added some chicken stock to thin it to my desired saucy consistency, and added 1 C of heavy cream. It needs to cool off some.
In the largest mixing bowl I could find, I mixed up a large container of cottage cheese (cheaper than ricotta and who can tell the difference when it’s all baked together, honestly), shredded mozzarella, parmesan cheese, 4 eggs, salt and pepper. I gently fold it together and add in some basil chiffonade (cut into ribbons, so fancy). I dump in the cooked pasta, and barely fold it all together. I add an equal amount of sauce and stir it all up.
Now I keep Disposable Aluminum 9 X 9 X 1 3/4 ” Square Cake Pans in bulk in my garage. They just make life so much easier. I grabbed five, sprayed them with cooking spray, and dumped in the pasta, cheese and sauce mixture. I topped each with two coffee mugs full of sauce each, then sprinkled on shredded mozzarella, grated parmesan, and a sprinkling of chopped basil and flat leaf parsley for color and flavor.
I sprayed squares of aluminum foil with cooking spray so it wouldn’t stick to the cheese when baked, and wrapped those babies up. I used black permanent marker to label them along with instructions for cooking right from the freezer or thawed in the fridge overnight. I wrapped them very tightly with plastic wrap and froze them.
Now come the details. It’s the thought that counts, yes. But a few details really sells the final product and makes your friends feel that much more special!
On my personal stationary, I write out the ingredients and cooking instructions.
Baked Rotini Bolognese
Organic, grass fed beef bolognese with all organic tomatoes, onions, carrots and celery + Barilla Rotini pasta, three cheeses + basil from our garden
From Frozen: 1) Preheat oven to 425º 2) Bake for 90 minutes until bubbly; 3) Remove foil for last 10 minutes and bake until lightly brown on top
Thaw in Fridge Overnight: 1) Preheat oven to 400º 2) Bake for 30-45 minutes until bubbly; 3) Remove foil for last 10 minutes and bake until lightly brown on top
This meal is already veggie packed, so it really just needs a crispy side salad and you are good to go on a weeknight!
I place the frozen meals with the instruction card, which usually includes an encouraging note, quote or verse, and tie the bag handles with a gorgeous ribbon. Voila! Thoughtful gift for someone who may not know that they need this, but these acts of loving kindness are part of what it means to be in a community. So let’s do it!