Saturday, January 1, 2011

Baked Ziti

There was a time when I made baked ziti for special occasions, but I think the last time I made it was for the disastrous final Christmas of my first marriage. We were in Cleveland, and I can't go into details about the complete disarray of the lives of those assembled, but part of what was going on was that I insisted on making Christmas Eve dinner for the first time. The previous year we were served literally no food. Well, I think there were cheese and crackers. We picked up sub sandwiches on the way home after opening presents at my sister-in-law's house.

In that marriage, I had entered a family freshly grieving the loss of the matriarch, and my husband's father, not known for his active engagement before the death of his wife, was more or less sleepwalking through the holidays. As my sister-in-law's life spiralled downward, Christmas became ever more depressing. That last Christmas before my own marriage imploded was a doozy, but at least we had a good meal.

One thing I remember strongly about that Christmas Eve was taking down and washing his mother's china. It was beautiful, simple stuff, unpretentious and classic, something I myself would choose, and coated in several years' worth of grime. I had never participated in such a simple act of domestic restoration before-- cleaning china and glassware, unwrapping and cleaning the serving plates, polishing silver. It was a real pleasure to be engaged in such a meditative, productive task in an atmosphere that was mostly marked by avoidance and shocking revelations. I also felt connected to this strong, modest, intelligent woman I had never met.

I made two types of baked ziti: one with mushrooms and poblano chilis for the vegetarians and one with a mix of ground pork and beef for the meat-eaters. The meal was beautiful and delicious. Just to give you a sense of the ambiance, though, let me describe my brother-in-law's appearance that evening. He sat next to me, having arrived from his shift as a meat cutter at the local grocery meat department. He had an absessed tooth which had caused his mouth to swell up horribly on one side, and which also made it impossible for him to wear his prosthetic front teeth. He was trying to get in my good graces over another family issue, so I just remember him lispingly making his case to me while we ate.

I'm not sure what made me want to make baked ziti this year. Maybe it is the stark difference in my life circumstances between then and now. Probably it was the fact that I wanted to make another dish with the ground venison and remembered how good this one was. In any event, it turned out wonderfully, and we ate it last night in the good company of my new sister- and brother-in-law Kevin and Amy Kluesner, who walked through a very blizzardy night with salad and wine, and with whom we shared many a fine toast and hope for the New Year. The Kluesners have a grandchild on the way. Steve just wrote out the final tuition check to put the last of his three daughters through college. The log cabin is complete. There will be an even bigger garden next year, and good work for us all.

I served the baked ziti on my own china, with a bottle of chianti my brother gave me. Afterward we walked to the third house on the farm, where we celebrated Sophia's 21st birthday with champagne and cake and a great game.

Baked Ziti

1 lb dry ziti pasta
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb ground mixed venison and pork (I've also done a veggie option with sauteed poblano peppers, mushrooms and spinach)
1 jar spaghetti sauce
6 oz provolone or smoked gouda cheese
dollops of sour cream
6 oz shredded mozzarella cheese
grated parmesan
herbs: oregano, thyme, salt, pepper and fennel

Cook the ziti until al dente per package instructions. In a skillet, sautee the onion until translucent, add ground meat and fennel and brown over medium heat. Add spaghetti sauce and other spices and simmer 5-10 minutes. Layer as follows in a buttered 9 x 13 baking pan: ziti, gouda, sour cream, 1/2 sauce mixture, remaining ziti, mozzarella and sauce. Top with grated parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheeses are melted and bubbling.


Corn Dog Mama said...

Lovely. :)

Corn Dog Mama said...

Lovely. :)

Eric and Constance said...

Please send me this recipe. I have a freezer full of venison!

Sarah-Jane - said...

found you via the next blog button.

Oh, I'd have loved the photos and recipes of your dish... Story made me laugh

Happy New Year