Back to School Baked Ziti

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I have been gone from here a long time. I've been hiking and swimming with my kids, making endless snacks, doing the barest minimum of work, and cooking only when I have to. (Not including roasting hatch chiles. When I see them piled up at the grocery store, I cancel all my plans.)

All of that is about to change, and I'm okay with that. Isn't it amazing how we pine for summer, and then we are so ready for it to end? 

To celebrate the last night of summer, I made something I knew the kids would scarf down. No chard or kale, no whole grains, no spicy chiles. Just soft tubular pasta, tomato sauce with sausage, and the most beautiful, bubbly cheesy top. 

After a dreamy summer, I am full of reflections about life, about parenthood, about how fast time goes. I've read some great books, re-established my meditation routine, slept in more than once, and fretted about my low client load, the inequality in this rich country, and how I ignore dirty laundry. What I've come to (no surprise--it's always the same) is that all I can do is love well every day--love my family, my dog, my neighbors, people that drive me *&$ing nuts, strangers, clients, and the people I have yet to meet. We are not on this earth long enough to do otherwise. We've got this one, slippery, fleeting chance.

Back to this casserole. America's Test Kitchen contacted me and asked if I'd cook a recipe out of their new cookbook The Make Ahead Cook. I ignore most promotional offers in my inbox unless I really believe in them. I listen to the ATK podcast every week (Christopher Kimball. Love.) and am a fan of anything that helps home cooks get in the kitchen and start cooking with confidence. I always joke that I'm a "measure-once-cut-twice" type of gal, and that's why I need people who are otherwise. ATK is a "measure-a-million-times-cut-once" kind of outfit. When you follow one of their recipes, you can be sure it will turn out perfectly and you'll feel like a million bucks. 

What I like about these recipes is that they are tested with the premise that they will be sitting in the fridge before they are eaten or cooked. This pasta, for instance, is cooked just 5 minutes before you drain it and assemble the casserole. I would have cooked it much longer (and got mushier results) without these meticulous test kitchen folks. And the best part? We were gone all day and just had to pop this in the oven when we got home.

Happy Fall, friends. May you be blessed in all your comings and goings.

Baked Ziti with Italian Sausage

1 lb. ziti or other short, tubular pasta
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. hot or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
4 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4" pieces
2 Tb. chopped fresh basil
8 oz. (1 cup) whole milk or part-skim ricotta cheese

To finish and serve:
4 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)
1 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated (1/2 cup)
2 Tb. chopped fresh basil

To prep:
1. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Add pasta and 1 Tb. of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Reserve 1 1/2 c. cooking water, then drain pasta. Rinse pasta with cold water and drain again, leaving pasta slightly wet in colander.
2. Dry now-empty pot, add 1 Tb. oil, and return to medim-high heat until shimmering. Add sausage and cook, breaking up meat with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, bring to simmer, and cook until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, 30-45 minutes.
3. Stir reserved cooking water, pasta, mozzarella, and basil into cooled sauce; transfer to 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Combine ricotta, remaining 3 Tb. oil, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper in bowl; cover.

To store:
4. Wrap dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate zit and ricotta separately for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours.

To finish and serve:
5. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Unwrap dish and cover tightly with greased aluminum foil. Bake casserole until beginning to bubble around edges, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and dollop rounded tablespoons of ricotta mixture evenly over top. Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan and bake, uncovered, until casserole is hot throughout and cheese is melted and begins to brown, 15-20 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and serve.