Baked Ziti at the Ronald McDonald House

It’s been a long couple of weeks at the Pestle Mortar household.  I’ll totally tell you the story one day over a gin and tonic or 5.  But suffice it to say that there has been no cooking or baking or even grocery shopping, although lists have been written of all the things that I plan on making in the near future.  And! I welcomed Pestle Mortar into the 2nd decade of the 21st century by signing up for Twitter.  Follow us on our culinary adventures, won’t you?  So even though I haven’t been cooking, I’ve been thinking about cooking and thinking about this little blog, and well, we all learned at a young age that it’s the thought that counts, right?

Anyhoo.  Long before life came and distracted me, I had signed up to cook lunch for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House with a friend from law school.  The idea behind the House is that families who have a child in the hospital can stay free of charge so that they can be nearby.  Some families send just one parent, others come with siblings, and they can stay for as long as it takes for the sick child to recover.  Families come from thousands of miles away from home, so one benefit they receive is getting home-cooked meals.  Usually staff will prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner, but volunteers are allowed to come and cook any meal, or just make cookies with the siblings staying at the house.  It’s a great place, but, of course, we all wish it weren’t necessary.

My friend, B–whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years, but, through the magic that is facebook, have reconnected with–organized an afternoon with a few of her friends and their young children to make lunch and generally have a lovely afternoon.  Since we weren’t sure how many people we’d be feeding–meals are set up buffet style and families can come at any point to help themselves–we decided to make 3 different kinds of baked ziti (turkey sausage, pork sausage and a completely vegetarian eggplant and spinach one) and lemon cupcakes.  What was great about the whole set up was that there were three different cooking stations, all the utensils and cookware that we needed, and the kitchen was industrial sized, so we never bumped into each other.  All we had to do was bring the ingredients, which B divided up equally, so we all spent the same amount and didn’t have to schlep huge bags of food. 

For some crazy reason (likely because none of them knew me.  Or perhaps they didn’t trust me with their kids, who were on cupcake duty), I was assigned to the vegetarian ziti station.  As we’ve learned, Italian food and I aren’t the best of friends, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve never made baked ziti.  Nor have I ever sautéed an eggplant (let alone cut one up), because I don’t really like it (it’s a texture thing.  For the same reason, I don’t like tomatoes, zucchini or meatloaf. That last one is a little random, I realize, but they all have the same squishy texture to me…).  So here I am charged with creating a vegetarian pasta dish that features one of my least favorite foods and I’m cooking for complete strangers who have a sick kid and need a wholesome meal.  Oh! And when I started, I didn’t have a recipe… Ok, then.

In the end it worked (mainly because B arrived with the recipe before I could do much damage) and it was a hearty, tasty meal that I would duplicate in a minute (I must be honest and say that I couldn’t bring myself to taste the eggplant version, but the turkey sausage one was yummy! I’m such a cheat! But people told me the veggie one was really good…).

As we were cleaning up the kitchen, the families thanked us, which was completely overwhelming, because really, we should have been thanking them for giving us a chance to do something so rewarding with a few hours on our Saturday.  B, her friends and I promised to do this every month and, as lovely as the families were, I know we’re all hoping that we won’t see the same people ever again…

Baked Ziti (via Williams Sonoma @

  • 4 tsp. plus 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3/4 lb. sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 small eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 can (28 oz.) crushed plum tomatoes with juices
  • 5 oz. ziti, cooked until al dente
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1/3 cup rinsed chopped Kalamata olives
  • 2 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Position a rack in the upper third of an oven and preheat to 400°F.

In a 10-inch nonstick fry pan over medium-high heat, warm 2 tsp. of the olive oil. Add the sausage and cook, stirring and crumbling with a wooden spoon, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Discard all but 1 Tbs. of the fat in the pan. Set the pan over medium-high heat and warm 2 tsp. of the olive oil. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally, under tender and browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

Set the pan over medium heat and warm the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil. Add the onion and cook until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up the browned bits. Cook until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Add the sausage, pasta, basil, olives, 2 cups of the mozzarella and the tomato sauce to the bowl with the eggplant and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the pasta mixture to the fry pan and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella and the Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. Cover the pan, transfer to the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover the pan and broil at 500°F for 5 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 6.


One Response to Baked Ziti at the Ronald McDonald House

  1. Pingback: Baked Ziti | STL Cooks

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