You know how there are some dishes you can’t eat out at restaurants or when anyone else makes them because they just aren’t the same as how you had them when you were growing up? I have a million of those dishes – meals that no one could make the way my mother made them. Foods that I would taste at a restaurant and grimace, “That’s not right! That’s not how MY mother makes it!”
To this day, there are so many foods I would just never order in a restaurant because they are not Mom’s, especially Italian food. Of course, since I became vegan, many of those dishes aren’t an issue for me anymore. Still, I watch cooking shows on TV and shake my head at the celebrity chefs, “Uh uh, that’s not how Mom made those. She never fried her meatballs, she boiled them right in the sauce. And no, no carrots in the sauce. It never tasted acidic.” But, alas, the celebrity chefs can’t hear me and maybe, even if they could, they are making their food the way their families always did.
In my entire life, I have NEVER tasted a sauce (or gravy, if you prefer) that came close to my mother’s – whether it was a meat sauce or a marinara. Except mine, of course, because I make it the way she did or at least, how I remember she did. I never really paid attention but so much of what she did in the kitchen made its way into my subconscious anyway. Thank goodness.
Baked ziti was a dish my mother made often. Everyone loved it. One day we went out to dinner at the ONLY Italian restaurant my mother would eat in – Frankie and Johnny’s Pine Tavern in the Bronx. She thought their sauce was delicious and she liked their eggplant parm (Mom NEVER ate meat in restaurants). I was young, maybe 12 or so. I wanted to order the baked ziti and my mother said not to, that I wouldn’t like it. I argued that I loved baked ziti and she argued that I loved HER baked ziti. In the end, I ordered the baked ziti.
It came to the table looking and smelling delicious. It was hot, covered in a fresh-smelling tomato sauce and covered with ooey-gooey mozzarella. So far, so good. But when I dug in, all there was under the cheese and sauce was dry, baked pasta. I looked at Mom and asked, “Where’s the cheese? Where’s the sauce? Why isn’t there cheese running all the way through like when you make it?” She got her “I told you so” moment and I never ordered baked ziti at a restaurant again.
Years later Mom made baked ziti for Tom so he could experience what it SHOULD taste like. She made it for him every week, enough for him to take home and to work. I think that may have been a big factor in why he kept dating me. The fact that I could make it just like Mom might be a factor in why he married me.
Now I make vegan baked ziti. Vegan, gluten-free baked ziti. In some ways, it’s very different than the baked ziti I grew up on but it’s still my mother’s sauce and it’s still my mother’s technique. Sometimes I change it up and make a ricotta out of nuts instead of tofu, like my hazelnut ricotta. Depending on the mozzarella you use, that could make the whole dish soy-free. Usually, I would use a penne-type pasta but in these pictures you see shells because that’s what I had on hand.
My Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti is just how I always loved it: ooey-gooey, creamy, cheesy pasta topped with a simple sauce that’s bursting with flavor and more melted cheesy goodness on top along with some crunchy bread crumbs. It’s still one of Tom’s favorites that make his eyes light up. Just like Mom’s always did. Enjoy!
Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti
1 lb. gluten-free pasta (any shape you like)
Simple Marinara Sauce (recipe below)
Creamy Tofu Ricotta (recipe below)
1 ½ cups vegan mozzarella shreds
1/3 cup gluten-free bread crumbs
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh parsley, for garnish
For the Simple Marinara Sauce
1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
½ medium red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1- 28oz. can crushed tomatoes
1- 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried basil
½ tsp. dried parsley
Salt & pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a medium size saucepan over medium-high heat. Sautee the onion and garlic for a few minutes until softened. Add the crushed and diced tomatoes and stir. Mix in the spices and herbs. Cover and let cook on low heat for about 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
For the Creamy Tofu Ricotta
1 lb. firm tofu, drained
2 Tbs. nutritional yeast or vegan grated parmesan
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
1 ½ tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried basil
2 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup vegan cream cheese
Crumble the tofu in a bowl. Add the other ingredients. Mix until fully blended. (You can use a food processor but I prefer to use my hands and play with my food). To make the tofu ricotta creamier and more decadent, add vegan cream cheese. It’s soooo good, you could just eat it by the spoonful!
For the Baked Ziti
Fill a large pot with water, cover and bring to a boil. While you are waiting for the water to boil, you can make the marinara sauce. When the water comes to a rapid boil, add a good amount of Kosher salt so that the pasta gets seasoned. Add the pasta, stir it around a bit and let cook until it is just shy of al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, make the creamy tofu ricotta. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, meaning it’s a little bit undercooked (remember it will cook further in the oven), drain it, reserving about ½ cup of the starchy cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot you cooked it in.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Add the ricotta to the pasta. Pour in the starchy cooking water and toss well. In a large baking dish, add a ladleful of the marinara sauce to line the bottom of the dish. Transfer the pasta-ricotta mixture to the baking dish and spread it out evenly. Top with a generous amount of the marinara sauce. You might want to reserve some to spoon on top when you serve the dish. Add a layer of the mozzarella shreds.
In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs with the oil. Use your fingers to mix it. The bread crumbs will become moist and crumbly. Sprinkle this mixture over the top of the mozzarella shreds.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 20 minutes until the cheese is melting and the sauce is bubbling. Uncover the dish and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the bread crumbs are browned. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes or so. This helps the pasta to set.
Garnish with fresh parsley. Serve with extra marinara sauce, if desired. Enjoy!
The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.