You should know that I love Oprah. Love Oprah. Love Oprah. Love Oprah. And also, I love Oprah. Winfrey, for those of you who weren’t sure.
I know that I’m not alone. I get that in a hierarchical sense, she’s throned somewhere between Jesus, Santa, and the first person to finesse cocoa beans into chocolate. Given that lots of people think the world of Miss O, my reverence may seem commonplace, unspecial even.
I assure it’s not. Just shy of getting her likeness tattooed on the small of my back to prove my love, because that would be an affront to Gayle, and a distasteful one-up to Stedman, I’ll settle and tell you in plain speech: I respect her.
I’ve been watching for nearly a lifetime, after all. She’s been talking to me in my living room for 25 years, and that ever-presence, that constant 4pm companion, well it means something. No, not that I know her intimately. No, not that I hold her every word as the gospel (though she does have some points…). No, not that she’s infallible or perfect or pure or even altogether altruistic in her giving.
I have often disagreed with her, found her to be spinning a story in the wrong direction, and thought a show should have addressed more angles of a subject, but then I remember that she’s just one person doing the best she can.
And the fact is, she’s someone who has shared her feelings, her assessments of trends, news, and changing times, and much of her life, openly with millions. For better or worse, she’s opened the door to ideas and started conversations that might not have otherwise begun. I applaud her for that.
I’m grasping for the point I began the post with, but as is so often the case with my Oprah love rants, I’ve lost it. There was a point here, though…somewhere here…huh, I bet it’ll come to me…if you could just giiive meee ooonnne sec …no, really I’m sure I’ll rememb-
Ah, yes. Oprah went vegan for a week. About a week ago, actually. I sat on my couch as I usually do, watching my DVR’ed episode of Oprah speaking with Michael Pollan and Veganist Kelly Freston, half the time nodding, a quarter of the time shaking my head, full time eating from the pint of Haagen Dazs.
In between spoonfuls of cold chocolate cream, I told Daniel, “You know these are really points to consider…”
Spoonful of dairy.
“I mean, I don’t think it would be all that strange or difficult to cut out animal foods.”
Gulp of chamomile tea with a splash of cow’s milk.
“Don’t you think? I mean…wouldn’t be so hard, right? I love experimenting, already love beans, tofu, grains, tempeh, almond milk…”
Spoonful of dairy.
At some point, maybe toward the end of my commentary, Daniel turned to me and asked me the most important question he’s ever asked me.
“But Monkey, what about milk and yogurt and cheese and cream?”
I just about swallowed the spoon.
In my lap sat the cold hard, yet ultra-delicious, truth: I’m in love with dairy. I know, I’m revealing lots of loves today. Yogurt and milk and heavy cream and salted butter and cottage cheese and oh sweet sweet oblivion—cheese. Thinking about it now, I realize it might serve me well to buy a cow someday.
The easy part being that Daniel’s always asking that we get a pet.
The hard part being that hay needles are a bugger to vacuum.
Point is, the very consideration of living life without butter and milk and cheese sent me straight into the kitchen to make baked ziti. Almost as if I had to prove to the stars above that I was the best dairy eater around. No one treats it better than I do. Y’hear me? No one.
And so, without further ado: Baked Ziti.
This is such a cozy, soothing casserole. A Sunday supper type. Creamy, cheesy, gooey, oozy. Sweet tomatoes and sharp parmesan and silky ricotta.
I think that I, like many people, assumed that baked ziti has to be several million calories to taste good and that it’s a bit fussy to make, but really it’s neither of those things. With a few nutritious tweaks on my end, a generous portion comes out to be only 400 calories, which paired with a big green salad, makes for a filling and balanced meal.
Since baked ziti only requires five key ingredients (ziti, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, and marinara), the key to making it unique, to taking it from so-so to superb is in the marinara. If you go the bottled, store bought route, make sure to buy one of really fabulous quality. I promise you that it matters which brand you buy, and generally speaking- the more you pay for the sauce, the better it tastes. Rao’s makes the best of any I’ve tried from the market, and it’s about $8 per bottle. Making one from scratch is really the best way to go- flavor-wise, budget-wise, and health-wise. And it just so happens that I have the best tomato sauce in my recipe box to share.
All credit goes to my adored step dad, PJ. It’s the.most.delicious.sauce.in.the.world. End of story. You can die tomorrow knowing that this is the one. Close the case. Finito. Finished. Done.
This is the one that I’ll ask for on my death bed, alongside PJ’s famous meatballs, assuming I still have my hungry wits about me and that Daniel still remembers to spoon feed me sauce and tapioca pudding when I’m unwell. I’ll put it in my will, to be safe.
Here we go.
Begin by sauteing half of a medium onion and a few cloves of garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium saucepan. Let them cook until very soft and golden brown. The more color they develop, the more flavor they’ll lend to the finished sauce.
Stir in one small can of tomato paste. This gives rich depth to the marinara, because the flavor is concentrated and sweet. You won’t be able to achieve quite as intense a flavor if you skip the paste and your sauce won’t be as thick.
Stir in one 28 ounce can of ground peeled or crushed tomatoes, along with a few heaping spoonfuls of sugar, oregano, salt, and pepper. Adding sugar to the sauce is something my family swears by, and it’s what makes this sauce, in particular, unique and lovely. I strongly recommend using the full amount called for. Now is not the time to skimp.
Bring the mixture up to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat and very lightly simmer it for as long as you possibly can stand. The longer the sauce spends on the stovetop, covered on low heat, the better the final outcome because the ingredients will blend and the flavors will concentrate. Give it at least 30 minutes, if that’s all you have.
When your sauce is ready, it’s time to assemble the baked ziti. To a large bowl, add 4 cups of cooked penne or ziti, 1 cup ricotta cheese, 2 cups of the marinara sauce, 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Stir to mix well.
Spoon the mixture into 4 greased ramekins for individual servings or into a large greased casserole dish.
Sprinkle the tops evenly with 1/2 cup mozzarella and 1/4 cup parmesan.
Bake for 15-20 minutest at 350 degrees F, or until the cheese has fully melted. Serve immediately.
4 cups cooked pasta, penne or ziti
1 cup part skim ricotta cheese
2 cups marinara sauce, preferably homemade (recipe below)
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese, divided
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked pasta, ricotta, marinara sauce, 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Stir to mix well. Pour into a greased casserole dish, or individual ramekins, and sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella and 1/4 cup parmesan. Bake for 15 -20 minutes, until the cheese has melted. Best when eaten immediately.
(makes about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28oz can crushed or ground, peeled tomatoes
1 5-6 oz can tomato paste
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan completely. Add the onion and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, for about 7 minutes, until browned. Lower the heat if they begin to burn. The more color that develops on the onion and garlic, the more flavor they’ll add to the finished sauce.
Once the onions and garlic are tender and caramel in color, add the crushed tomatoes and the tomato paste and stir until the mixture is smooth and well combined.
Add the remaining ingredients (oregano through pepper), stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Lower the heat to the lowest setting, cover and let cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the bottom does not burn.
Nutrition information for 1 serving of baked ziti:
Calories: 431, Fat: 12.9g, Cholesterol: 51.9mg, Sodium: 858.3mg, Carb: 56.1g, Fiber: 3g, Sugars: 0.2g, Protein: 22.7g