Baked Ziti with Pork Bolognese

Some of you may remember my post from last week, Confessions of a (former) picky eater, that I used to not eat ground meat.  Not sure why exactly, but I think it was probably a texture thing.  However, one thing I did always love was pasta.  So, it seems only natural that the way I learned to work some ground meat into my diet was via the amazing noodle.  I also never used to eat anything other than butter and parmesan on pasta.  Not long after that I graduated to the creamy goodness of Alfredo sauce.  Turns out I completely loved cream sauces and for years I stuck to them faithfully, experimenting with dozens of cheeses, seasonings, vegetables, and so forth.  But not once did I venture into the land of the tomato-based pasta sauce.  Tomatoes were on my “don’t eat” list in almost every form except ketchup and barbeque sauce.  I don’t remember exactly when I first ate tomatoes or tomato sauce, but I’m pretty sure it was on pasta.  Leave it to the noodle, once again, to convince me to eat something new!

The pasta sauce below is a simple and easy Bolognese sauce that can be varied with any number of ingredients and served any number of ways, some more authentic than others.  Though I am often a purist when it comes to traditional Italian cuisine (why mess with perfection, right?), this sauce is more Italian-American.  In my book that’s okay though because it’s still got most of the traditional elements that make red sauce so fantastic.  It’s great for baked ziti, which is how I used it this time, but also for lasagna and for long, wide noodles like tagliatelle or pappardelle.

One of the ingredients that gives this sauce depth of flavor is fennel seed.  Fennel is actually an herb whose bulb, fronds, and seeds have a lovely anise flavor.  Years ago my dad traveled regularly up to Maine and used to eat at this restaurant where they served lasagna.  This was years before my family ever traveled to Italy and actually ate authentic Italian food, but my dad recognized that the lasagna he was eating was not your regular, run-of-the-mill dish.  It had a flavor that was familiar to him, but that he couldn’t put his finger on.  All he knew was that it elevated the dish.  Eventually though he figured out what it was and came home to tell my mom that she needed to add to her lasagna – LICORICE!  So, for years my mom chopped up little tiny pieces of black licorice and layered them into her lasagna.  They melted into the dish in all of their blackish-greenness and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  It wasn’t until years later when we were traveling in Italy that the owner of a little trattoria informed us that what she needed need to be using was fennel.  Who knew!  That’s part of what I love about cooking – one little ingredient can take a recipe from plain to extraordinary.

(Note: My dad will probably tell me later that I got the entire story wrong, but to be fair I was really little when all of this went down, so my memory is probably pretty awful.  You get the gist though.)

I have to apologize ahead of time for the lack of photos in this post.  I was cooking on a weeknight and the time just got away from me.  I have to say that learning to work photography into cooking is not the easiest task.  I promise though, I’m going to get better at it!

Baked Ziti with Pork Bolognese

For Sauce:

Olive oil

1-2 tbsp bacon grease (not necessary, but if you keep a jar in the fridge like me…)

1 medium onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 lb ground pork

½ tsp red pepper flakes

½ tsp fennel seed

¾ to 1 cup dry white wine

1 (15 oz) can of whole, peeled tomatoes – San Marzano if possible

1 small can tomato sauce

2 tbsp tomato paste (I buy in a tube and only use as much as I need)

1 tsp agave nectar or ¼ to ½ tsp sugar

Use a very large pan for this dish as the ingredients add up to a large volume of sauce.  I use a large, wide, shallow pan, but you could also use a decently large pot.  Add 1 tbsp of olive oil and 2 tbsp bacon grease to the pan and set it on medium heat (if you don’t have bacon grease in a jar in the fridge like me you can just skip it and just use olive oil).  Add the diced onion, season with salt and pepper, and saute until soft and lightly browned, then add garlic. Cook for 2-3 more minutes.  Add 1-2 tbsp more olive oil, turn up the heat a bit and then break up the ground pork into the pan.  Season with salt and pepper.  Brown the meat, turning and breaking it up as you do so, for 3-4 minutes.  While it’s cooking add the red pepper flakes and fennel seed.  If you prefer you can break up the spices in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, but I don’t really think it’s necessary.  Once you’ve stirred in the spices, add the white wine.  Let the mixture simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Then add all of the tomato products – whole peeled, sauce, and paste.  Stir together and use a fork or potato masher to crush the whole tomatoes.  Wait until the sauce just starts to simmer, then turn down the heat so that it doesn’t bubble too vigorously (which makes a mess and spatters all over your stove). Cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Taste it about halfway through cooking to see if the sauce is too acidic – in which case you should add the agave nectar or sugar.  Tomato sauces need just a little bit of sweetness to be balanced.  Sometimes the onions are sweet enough to achieve this.  Traditional Italian recipes will use carrots to add sweetness as well.  If you have them on hand, by all means add about 1/4 cup of thinly shredded carrots when you’re cooking the onions.

For Ziti:

1 one-pound box of ziti pasta (penne is also a good substitute)

1 ½ cups ricotta (you can use the grocery story kind instead of the expensive good kind)

8 oz fresh mozzarella

½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

While the sauce is cooking you can get your pasta ready.  Cook the pasta in plenty of lightly salted water until just shy of tender.  Drain and toss with olive oil so that the noodles don’t stick together.  Spray a large casserole dish with cooking spray so that the ziti doesn’t stick, then add half of the ricotta and half of the pasta.  Toss together so that the pasta is coated and then add about half of the pasta sauce.  Mix thoroughly, the add the rest of the ingredients and mix again.  You could do all of this in one really large bowl, but why create another dirty dish that you have to wash, right? Instead, working in batches means that you can mix it all in the pan and ensure that every bit of pasta is still coated with the sauce and ricotta.  Scrape any remaining sauce out of the pan and spread it on top of the pasta.  Cut up the mozzarella into small pieces and evenly spread on top, then dust the entire thing with the grated parmesan.  Bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is melted an slightly browned.  Remove from the oven and let it sit for 5-10 minutes before serving

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