This is such a straightforward, simple dish; maybe that’s why I didn’t think to share it until this past week. Even though this — the main course during holidays at my Great Aunt Jesse’s house on Long Island — mesmerized me as a child. Even though every time I smell this gravy on the stove, or smell the combination of the pasta, sauce and cheese bubbling away in the oven, I am reminded of my grandmother’s beautiful and wrinkled hands, her nails painted light pink and her aquamarine ring sparkling in the New York sunshine. Even though tears can all too quickly sting my eyes when I see my little boys happily munching away on crispy cheese and saucy pasta tubes.
I wish they could have met my Aunt Jesse, who poured so much of herself into these holiday feasts. I wish they could have met my grandmother and grandfather, too. When baked ziti is at the center of our table, usually a couple times a year and always on Christmas Day, somehow it feels like we meet them around the table, and for a few minutes at least, we are all together.
This recipe is vegetarian, but my Aunt would always throw a few short ribs into the sauce and let the gravy simmer all day. I love to do this too. Sometimes I’ll make meatballs or roast sausages to add to the pot of leftover gravy, letting people pick and choose what they want out of the big pot. I also love to have a big chunk of Parmesan and a microplane out on the table for grating. Little mountains of finely grated Parmesan are never a bad idea.
Makes 8 servings; total time: around 2 hours
For the gravy:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons tomato paste
2 28-ounce cans cans tomatoes, whole
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 carrots, grated
Handful of fresh basil
Pinch of raw or brown sugar
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste
For the ziti:
1 pound dried ziti pasta
about half of the prepared gravy
1 pound (around 4 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese
Sea salt and black pepper
Preparation: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt until it tastes like the sea. Once it comes to a boil, add the dried pasta and cook until pasta is almost tender. Drain and reserve. While all this is happening, you can get started on the gravy.
In a large pot, heat butter over medium heat until melted and bubbling. Add tomato paste and let cook, stirring occasionally until the tomato paste turns a shade darker. This will take 10-15 minutes over medium-low heat. We are caramelizing the tomato paste, which will add tons of flavor. Now add the canned tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you put them into the pot with all their juices. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, basil, raw sugar, red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper. Let it simmer for around 30 minutes. Check seasoning, adjust as needed, turn off heat and blend well before transferring back to the pot. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Once the sauce is done, you can assemble the ziti. Spoon a generous amount of tomato gravy in the bottom of a 9-by-13 rectangle or oval baking dish. Pour the cooked ziti into the pan. Cover generously with sauce, top with cheese and crack a bit of sea salt and black pepper over the top.
Bake in the oven for one hour, or until the cheese is brown and bubbling. Remove from the oven and let cool ten minutes before serving. The extra sauce can be spooned over the top as desired.