Sunday, May 5, 2013

Baked Ziti with Mini Meatballs

As usual, the weekend has flown by! I hope you had a great weekend.  On Friday, I tried The Cuban with my bride-to-be friend Jess.  It was excellent.  I highly recommend the guacamole with lump crabmeat and plantain chips as an appetizer! My dad arrived on Saturday morning, and we spent part of the day relaxing, part of it doing apartment repairs/maintenance, and, of course, part of it cooking.  In the afternoon, I tried a new bread recipe.  It was delicious, but quite time-consuming.  Next time, I'll either try a new recipe or stick with what I know.  To add to our carb-loading, I made baked ziti for dinner.  More on that later!

Why, you ask, were we carb-loading? My dad and I were preparing for the TD Five Boro Bike Tour! Although my friend Rach and I have done this ride a total of five times, this is the second time riding it with our dads.  The dads are both avid bikers, and they put Rach and I to shame again this year.  32,000 cyclists participate in the ride, as it weaves through 40 miles of car-free roads in all five boroughs of New York City.  As veterans, we decided to skip the waiting at the start of the tour, and ride the first 7 miles up Manhattan's West Side Highway.  We met up with the rest of the tour at the top of Central Park, looped briefly in and out of the Bronx, and down to the Queensboro Bridge.  After cycling through Queens and over the Pulaski bridge into Brooklyn, the tour "ends" with a 3-mile trek over the Verrazano Bridge to a festival in Staten Island.  Although the highs were around 65 degrees F today, it was certainly cold and windy on the bridges! I say the tour "ends" with the Verrazano bridge, but after the festival, there are still 3 miles until the official end at the Staten Island Ferry.  There were a few tough parts along the way, but we made relatively good time and finished in 3:35.

Now that I've thoroughly recapped the weekend, let's get back to the baked ziti! The recipe originally called for ground beef, but as you know from earlier this week - beef isn't my thing, so I used ground chicken.  From the one pound of meat, I made 38 meatballs.  Once cooked, the meatballs plumped up a bit so they weren't exactly bite-sized.  When repeating this recipe, I'll make more, smaller meatballs.  Gonna Want Seconds suggested not rinsing the pasta after draining it.  Apparently this retains the pasta's natural starches which helps the sauce cling better to the pasta.  I followed suit and cannot complain about the results.

Finally, one of my usual complaints about baked ziti is the lack of marinara sauce.  When the casserole bakes, the sauce always seems to be absorbed by the pasta, leaving quite a dry mixture.  Thanks to the TWO jars of sauce in this recipe - that problem no longer persists.  Enjoy!

Baked Ziti with Mini Meatballs
Adapted from Gonna Want Seconds
Serves: 6-8
Time: 1 hour


2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons low-fat milk
3/4 cup Parmesan Romano cheese, grated and divided
1 heaping tablespoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 lb. ground chicken
Flour, for dredging
1 lb. uncooked ziti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 24-oz. jars marinara sauce
3 cups whole milk Ricotta cheese
1/4 cup dried basil
Cooking spray
1-2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded

1. In a medium bowl, combine eggs, bread crumbs, milk, 1/2 cup of Parmesan Romano cheese and the parsley to the bowl and mix well.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add chicken and combine until just mixed.  Shape into bite-size meatballs.  Pour flour into a shallow dish.  Roll each meatball in the flour to coat; shake off excess flour.

2. In a large pot, cook pasta according to package directions.  Pasta should be al dente.  Drain pasta in a colander and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  When oil is almost smoking, add half of the meatballs to the skillet.  Without moving the meatballs, allow them to cook for about 3 minutes.  Turn meatballs and brown the other side. Continue to cook until meatballs are cooked through.  Set aside to a plate, and 
cook remaining batch of meatballs.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

5. In a large bowl, combine marinara sauce and ricotta cheese.  Add cooked ziti, basil, and meatballs, and toss gently to combine.

6. Coat a 9x13-inch baking dish with cooking spray, and cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Pour pasta into 9x13 dish and top with mozzarella and remaining Parmesan Romano cheese.  Place 9x13 dish on top of baking sheet to collect any drippings, and bake until top is golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.

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