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Baked Ziti with Sausage

Baked ziti is covered-dish cooking at its best, and is just the thing to take to a friend who needs a bit of cheering up. This version is more generously proportioned than most, with enough flavorful Italian sausage, roasted eggplant, tangy tomato sauce and lush ricotta to satisfy even the heartiest appetite.

Ingredients:

  • 2 small eggplants, about 3/4 pound each
  • 4 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 lb. sweet or hot Italian pork sausages, casings removed
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup hearty red wine 
  • 1 can (28 oz.) crushed plum tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 lb. ziti or other tubular pasta
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

Preheat an oven to 400°F. Lightly oil a 3-quart baking dish or 6 individual baking dishes. Cut the eggplants into bite-sized cubes. Spread the cubes on a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 3 Tbs. of the oil and toss to coat. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large, heavy saucepan, heat the remaining 1 Tbs. oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausages and cook, stirring and breaking them up with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate. Pour off all but 2 Tbs. of the fat in the pan.

Add the onion to the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine, stir to loosen any browned bits on the pan bottom and bring to a boil. Stir in the tomatoes, oregano and red pepper flakes and bring to a boil. Return the sausage to the pan and stir in the eggplant. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in the olives and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and stir occasionally until the water returns to a boil. Cook according to the package directions until not quite al dente. (The pasta will cook again in the oven, so do not overcook it now.) Drain well.

Add the pasta to the sauce along with the ricotta, and stir until combined. Season with salt, taste and adjust the seasoning with red pepper flakes. Spread the pasta mixture in the prepared baking dish(es) and sprinkle evenly with the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the Parmigiano-Reggiano is golden, about 20 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then serve. Serves 6.

Variation: For a meatless version of this dish, substitute 11/4 pounds quartered cremini mushrooms for the sausage, and finely chopped fresh rosemary for the oregano. Sauté the mushrooms in the olive oil (you may need more oil) over medium-high heat until tender, about 8 minutes.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Comfort Food, by Rick Rodgers (Oxmoor House, 2009).