- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pasta suits just about everyone at my house, and that is a miracle. Picky eaters seem to become a lot less discriminating when a plateful of warm noodles is put before them, with a red sauce emitting all sorts of wonderful aromas, and as long as there is plenty of cheese. My children adore cheese.

What I love about this particular pasta recipe — meaty ziti — is that it skips a step. You don’t need to boil the pasta, which I think is the downfall of so many casseroles and what makes them time-consuming to prepare. The ziti goes into the casserole raw and bakes to doneness blanketed by a meaty tomato sauce and creamed spinach.

This is truly a one-dish meal, but if you must, add a green salad and some bread. Feel free to jazz up the meat sauce with a little red wine, pesto sauce or more garlic.

To thaw the frozen creamed spinach easily in a microwave oven, place the pouch on a microwave-safe plate, cut a slit in the pouch so the steam can escape, and microwave it on high power until the spinach is thawed, 45 seconds to 1 minute.

Five time-shaving ways to serve pasta in spring

• For an easy and fresh sauce, cut up tomatoes and place in a large bowl with cubes of fresh mozzarella, some fresh basil or oregano, a little crushed garlic and some olive oil. Toss with the freshly cooked and still-warm pasta of your choice.

• Top warm linguine with a good store-bought pesto, add grilled chicken slices and slivers of fresh basil.

• Toss warm angel hair pasta with olive oil, steamed asparagus tips, peas and shredded carrots for a simple primavera.

• Doctor store-bought Alfredo sauce with shredded Parmesan cheese and lemon zest, and spoon onto cooked fettuccine.

• Crumble some breakfast sausage into a pan and fry until done, then drain off grease and add a handful of sliced mushrooms to the pan, cooking over low heat until the juice begins to come out of the mushrooms. Heat a marinara and spoon it over cooked pasta in a bowl.

Top with a spoonful of the sausage and mushroom combination. Add the cheese of your choice on top.

Meaty ziti

The preparation and cooking time is 15 minutes; the baking time is 30 minutes, and the resting time is 10 minutes.

1 pound ground beef round

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or 1 26-ounce jar marinara sauce

1 clove garlic, crushed in a garlic press

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

8 ounces uncooked ziti (2 cups)

1 9-ounce package frozen creamed spinach, thawed

1 8-ounce (2 cups) package pre-shredded mozzarella cheese

Crumble ground beef into a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring and breaking up lumps with a wooden spoon, until beef browns all over and is cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, garlic, oregano and basil.

Spoon 1 cup of meat sauce on bottom of a 3-quart glass or ceramic casserole. Arrange ziti in an even layer on top of sauce. Pour remaining meat sauce over ziti. Spread creamed spinach evenly over the top with a knife. Cover baking dish with aluminum foil. Dish can be made up to 1 day in advance to this point. Refrigerate until baking time. Bake ziti on center rack of preheated 375-degree oven until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove baking dish from oven and carefully remove aluminum foil and set aside. Scatter mozzarella evenly over top and re-cover dish with foil. Let ziti rest until cheese melts, 10 minutes. Serve at once. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


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