I haven't always embraced my Italian-American identity. That's not to say I'm not proudly Italian-American, or that I'm somehow ashamed of my Italian ancestry. It was more the Jersey Shore Italian-American stereotype that sort of haunted me, even before MTV entered the conversation.
On campus at The Culinary Institute of America, where we talked about food all day every day, I panicked a little any time I had to say the word "ricotta." I know how an Italian says ricotta, but my New Jersey Italian-American family says "ri-got." I know how an Italian says mozzarella, but my family says "mooz-a-dell." I'd end up blurting out some unfortunate hybrid of every way I've ever imagined any person could say the word, feeling more conspicuous than if I had just let it roll off my tongue the way my Nonna would have said it.
Even the food itself stressed me out. "Chicken parmigiana is not Italian." "Real Italians don't simmer their sauce all day, they eat fresh tomato sauce," all the while being afraid they'd find out that my mom calls tomato sauce "gravy!" And even though there was no part of me that believed my Sicilian ancestors were frying up chicken parm in their little coastal homes, I knew that chicken parm was part of my Italian-American experience. It might not be traditional Italian, but it's definitely traditional New Jersey Italian-American, and that is, after all, what I am.
This is all a very long way of saying that I love baked ziti, and I am no longer afraid to admit it.
Baked ziti is just an Italian-American lasagna all mixed up. Ziti (or rigatoni, sometimes, if you're at my house), sauce slash gravy, mooz-a-dell, and ri-got. Sometimes we add sausage or chopped up meatballs. The best things about baked ziti is that you cannot mess it up, and it's a great make-ahead meal.
This week, I tried something new, though, and made a baked pasta that was baked ziti-adjacent. It was creamy, lemony, and filled with broccoli rabe, my favorite of the controversial vegetables. If you don't typically love broccoli rabe (also called rapini), give it a shot here, because the creaminess and slight sweetness of the ricotta is a nice balance to the bitterness of the greens. Of course, if you just can't with broccoli rabe, you can use broccoli, broccolini, or even chopped Swiss chard or collards. Just choose something hardy that will hold up to the double cooking.
This made a nice big batch, enough for 8 hungry people or 10 to 12 plus a salad. Here's what I used:
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 6 cloves garlic, minced or sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 3 anchovy fillets
- 1 bunch broccoli rabe, chopped (about 10 cups)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup lemon juice (from about 2 lemons) -- zest them first, you'll need 1 teaspoon for later
- 1 lb ziti, penne, or rigatoni
- 8 oz ricotta cheese
- 1/2 lb Fontina cheese, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups), divided
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest (from about 1/2 lemon)
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the anchovies and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fillets dissolve, about 2 minutes. Add the broccoli rabe and salt, and stir to coat in the oil. Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook until the broccoli rabe is tender, about 4 minutes. Add the lemon juice and cook until it reduces by about half, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes (or according to the package instructions). Strain and transfer to the bowl with the broccoli rabe, and toss to combine.
- To the bowl with the pasta, add the ricotta, 1 cup of the Fontina, and lemon zest, and toss until well-coated. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Transfer to a 9 by 13-inch baking dish and cover with foil. Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes, then uncover and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Return to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown around the edges, about 10 minutes.
- To make this ahead of time, complete the recipe through Step 4. Transfer to the baking dish and cover and refrigerate. Set out for at least 30 minutes before covering with the remaining cheese and baking.
- For a vegetarian version, omit the anchovies and use a vegetarian (non-animal rennet) Fontina.
- If you like your pasta saucy, this dish would be great topped with basil pesto or Italian salsa verde (similar to chimichurri). Herb sauces and lemon are a natural fit.
- If you'd like to add some meat, browned pancetta or sausage would be great. Stick with something that will hold up well to time in the oven (lean proteins like chicken and shrimp might dry out).
- Posted by Laura, DISH Editor