Baked Ziti with Italian Style Meatballs, Broccoli and Ricotta
A BRUCE AIDELLS SIGNATURE RECIPEThis satisfying baked pasta is somewhere between lasagna and mac & cheese. Like lasagna, it is an ideal recipe for potlucks, family gatherings or simple one-dish dinners.
Heat a heavy large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat and fry the pancetta until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat in the pot. Add the optional sausage to the pot and fry until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme and bay leaves; pour in the wine. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the pancetta to the pot. Boil until the wine is reduced by about half, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juices. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the sauce is slightly thicker and develops a rich flavor, stirring occasionally and adding a little water if the liquid evaporates, about 1 hour.
Add the meatballs to the sauce, cover and simmer 10 minutes to heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaves. (The sauce can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Scrape solid fat from the surface before using.)
Grease a 9x13-inch shallow glass pan. Gently warm the sauce in a covered pot over low heat.
Cook the broccoli in boiling salted water until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain. Then cool in ice water. Drain well. Coarsely chop the broccoli. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until almost tender but firm to the bite (pasta will soften as it bakes), about 10 minutes. Drain well.
In a large bowl, combine the pasta, broccoli, meatballs and sauce, and ricotta cheese and mix to combine. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the mozzarella over the top, then sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead to this point. Cover with plastic and refrigerate.)
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake the pasta uncovered until the cheese is golden brown and the ziti is hot in the center (an instant read thermometer will registers 130°F), 20-30 minutes if baked shortly after assembly, 35-45 minutes if made ahead and refrigerated.