You should know that I love Oprah. Love Oprah, love Oprah, love Oprah.
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.
Lighter Three Cheese Baked Ziti
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.
Lighter Three Cheese Baked Ziti
- 4 cups cooked pasta recommended: ziti or penne
- 1 cup part skim ricotta cheese
- 2 cups marinara sauce preferably homemade (see recipe below)
- 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese divided
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese divided
Marinara Sauce (makes about 4 cups)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ⅓ cup finely chopped onion
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1 28- ounce can crushed or ground peeled tomatoes
- 1 6- ounce can tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a casserole dish or 6 8-ounce oven-safe ramekins with cooking spray.
- In a large bowl, combine the cooked pasta, ricotta, marinara sauce, ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese, and ¼ cup of the Parmesan cheese. Stir to mix well. Spread the pasta into the prepared dish or ramekins and sprinkle evenly with the remaining ½ cup mozzarella and ¼ cup of the parmesan. Bake until the cheese has melted, 15 to 20 minutes. *Best when eaten immediately.
- For the marinara sauce: 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 cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the bottom does not burn. Serve.
Calories 431, Fat 12.9g, Sodium: 858.3mg, Carb 56.1g, Fiber 3g, Sugars 0.2g, Protein 22.7g Nutrition Information for 1 serving Marinara Sauce (about ½ cup): Calories 86, Total Fat 3.6g, Sat Fat 0.5g, Sodium 281.7g, Carb 12.5g, Fiber 1g, Sugars 9.6g, Protein 1.8g