Four-Cheese Baked Ziti

This is made from my homemade tomato sauce and incorporates mozzarella (shredded and fresh), parmesan (grated and shaved) and colby-jack (shredded) all in one casserole.  It feeds a large crowd and is great leftover!

Begin by making the sauce.  This makes enough to prepare the baked ziti in this recipe and you’ll have 2 – 3 cups of sauce left to freeze for another use.  I like having some homemade sauce in the freezer for a busy weeknight.  Just thaw and heat, then cook up some pasta … and you’ve got a quick dinner!

Saute the following in a good drizzle of olive oil on medium heat in a large sauce pan:

1 large onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

1 cup of button mushrooms, roughly chopped

2 carrots, peeled and diced

4 green onions, sliced

2 celery stalks, chopped

5 – 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

I add in 1 – 2 sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped finely (optional).

Season veggies with salt and pepper and allow to cook 10 minutes or so … stirring occasionally.

In the meantime, add 1 cup of water to 1 pound of ground beef (I use chuck) in a large saute pan over medium heat. 

Using a rubber spatula, I smash and break apart the meat so that it is very fine in texture.  When meat is cooked thoroughly (DO NOT DRAIN OUT LIQUID), add the following:

1 dried bay leaf

A pinch of red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon of garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano

1 teaspoon of dried Italian herbs

Salt and pepper

Combine and turn off burner. 

Next, add in two 26 oz. cans of tomato sauce to sautéed veggies and stir to combine.  Then, pour meat mixture (including any liquid remaining) into tomato sauce. 

Stir and add in 1 teaspoon of brown sugar

As sauce starts to bubble, add in a couple of good handfuls of roughly chopped fresh spinach

Stir.  Cover and allow to simmer on low for several hours.  The longer it cooks, the better it is.  I find you’ll want to simmer it for, at least, three hours.  I start mine around noon for dinner that night!

Prepare a box of ziti pasta just a few minutes short of the package cooking time.  You don’t want mushy noodles for this casserole!  They’ll finish cooking during the baking process.  Drain noodles. 

Pour them into a very large mixing bowl.

Just before you plan to put the recipe together, stir in 1 1/2 cups of grated parmesan cheese into the tomato sauce.  Check and adjust for seasoning.

Pour all but 2 – 3 cups of sauce over the noodles … reserving remaining sauce for freezing and later use.  Add in the following:

1 contained of fresh mozzarella balls (they usually come packed in water), halved

4 – 5 ounces of shredded mozzarella

A good handful of shaved parmesan

Stir and pour into a greased 9″ x 13″ casserole dish.  Top with about a cup of shaved parmesan cheese and a cup of shredded mozzarella cheeseBake loosely covered with foil on 350º for about 30 minutes.  Remove foil and top with a couple of handfuls of shredded colby-jack cheese

Bake for an additional 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly.  Remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Serve with garlic bread.

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