Baked Ziti

I had never made baked ziti. I had only had it when others made it, now and then. The kids had never had casseroles of any kind. Between wanting to try making new things and adding variety to the parade of meals, and thinking that casseroles might be some low cost menu items, I had wanted to spring casseroles on them. Baked ziti seemed like a good, passingly familiar place to start.

Having never made it, I had a misconception of what the dish entailed. My metal image was make meat sauce, make pasta, mix them together, put them in a casserole pan, throw some cheese on top, bake. I found myself thinking that it was pasta, but cooked redundantly.

Wednesday I looked at recipes online. They vary, but I was surprised to learn that many include ricotta cheese. I had never cooked with ricotta. While I happily ate completed lasagna when my sister or mother made it during my latter youth (until my father left, we never had things like that), I always thought the ricotta mix during the process looked disgusting.

I was also surprised it called for mozzarella cheese. Weirdly enough, I had already bought a pound of that. My oldest wanted to try it, since she loves string cheese. I had thought some of it could go on top of the ziti, since I knew I wanted cheese on top. My daughter hated it. I was shocked. It’s delicious! Nothing special; Market Basket store brand whole milk mozzarella. My perception of mozzarella had always been that it’s almost completely bland, and is used on pizza due to its melting properties. Having tasted pre-shredded mozzarella did nothing to change that notion. Having tasted mozzarella cheese sticks, fried and not, didn’t do enough to change that perception, though now I can see why they taste better than I’d have expected.

OK, so Thursday I stopped at Hannaford for ricotta so I could make baked ziti for supper. Bottom line: Success! Main lesson learned: Use less cheese next time.

Per usual, I followed no one recipe. Many of them call for sausage. That would be fantastic, but I had ground beef. I cooked the ground beef, slightly seasoning it, and got rid of most of the excess oil. That was perhaps 1.5 lbs before cooking. I added a jar of Francesco Rinaldi, my favorite sauce as well as the lowest cost name brand in jars. Unfortunately, the one jar left on the shelf was tomato and basil. I’d have preferred meat flavored or original for this. I added a small can of tomato paste to extend it and to modify the flavor of the sauce. A small can of generic tomato sauce would have been better. I adulterated the sauce with seasoning and brown sugar, so it wasn’t much different from what we would normally have on pasta.

Meanwhile, I cooked two boxes of ziti with lines. That was intentionally extra, to save some plain pasta for kids who wouldn’t want the baked ziti. I used something approaching 1.5 boxes in the actual casserole.

In keeping with many but not all of the recipes I had perused, I layered the bottom of a deep stoneware casserole pan (thank goodness for gifts or I’d not own something that nice) with the sauce. Not half. It took well over half to make an acceptable layer. On that I put some chunks of mozzarella and cheddar. The amount of cheddar used was modest. The amount of mozzarella was most of a pound.

Per some of the recipes, but not all, I mixed 16 ounces of ricotta with the ziti. I also mixed in a bunch of small chunks of mozzarella. That went in on top of the meat sauce layer, filling the casserole almost completely.

I dabbed the rest of the sauce onto the top of the ziti, sprinkled a generous amount of parm cheese on it, and completed it with more mozzarella and a lesser amount of cheddar.

It baked at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, in keeping with one of the recipes I’d referenced. It looked fantastic, but in retrospect could have used a bit more time for a crispier top.

The two kids who tried it liked it, though one of them picked out the meat. I thought it was great, but it lost a lot of appeal when it cooled down. The wife thought it needed more cooking time and less cheese, but really enjoyed it. As leftovers, the flavor actually improved. It’s tasty cold, and was better nuked hot than it had been fresh.

I’ll definitely make it again, as modified. Now I need to figure out what to make with the leftover ricotta. It was almost as cheap to get 32 oz as it would have been to get 16 oz, and I wasn’t sure just how much I’d actually need.


I had no idea glove requirements were a thing. As someone who loves to cook, I can’t imagine wearing gloves to touch the food. Worse, it would be like a crutch. Instead of my obsessive hand washing during food prep, I could see being tempted to rely on gloves as a crutch, even as they get dirtier and dirtier. Conversely, doing the equivalent of obsessive hand washing could mean dozens of pairs of gloves per day. That’s crazy!

Allergy Fakers

Fascinating article about the havoc raised in restaurants by allergy fakers. I would never think to say I was “allergic” to something I simply didn’t like, or was slightly sensitive to. It includes a look at the history of allergy and celiac recognition and diagnosis, and at the backlash starting to grow in response to people who use the A word to bludgeon restaurants into providing special treatment they don’t actually need.

Poor Kids

Using the other half of a large pack of kielbasa, yesterday I made “kielbasa and cabbage.” This was inspired by my grandmother having served that now and then. It was kind of an alternative to boiled dinner.

I included a cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and seasoning. I loved it. Two of the kids wouldn’t touch it, even though all three kids love kielbasa in the form of sweet & sour, and one of them loves potatoes and carrots. The one who tried it liked it OK, except I gave her just a bite of cabbage and it apparently had a piece of red pepper flake or something else strong in it. Two of the kids have eaten salad at school that included cabbage along with lettuce, so they weren’t as weirded out by cabbage as they might have been. Just by it being cooked.

The wife has yet to try it. She snacked too close to supper, too much to be hungry. She enjoyed the smell, though.

Sweet & Sour Kielbasa

Is this frugal? Maybe, or maybe not, but it is something I make regularly, much beloved by everyone in the house. It’s a rare meal that all three kids eat. I don’t have a recipe, but it’s straightforward. I was inspired by a dish of the same name by my sister, as more of a party appetizer, using whole berry cranberry sauce. Mine is more savory.

I put a tiny bit of water in a saucepan, and add a can of jellied cranberry sauce. Brand makes no difference, so I’m always delighted to get store brand for 99¢, or less in the case of an extended sale Hannaford had last fall. I like to use a small whisk to break it up, as the goal is to reduce it back to liquid. For a heavier batch, you can use a second can of cranberry. For thinner sauce, more water.

I add ample dry mustard (tablespoon?), some ginger and plenty of allspice. To be honest, between the flavor of cranberry sauce and kielbasa, I am not sure how much influence the seasoning even has. I think the mustard helps make it more savory, and I can tell the allspice is there. Ground cloves could probably sub for allspice, but I’d use less. They go well in homemade cranberry sauce, so it makes sense.

The other ingredient for the sauce is brown sugar. A lot of it. That’s the sweet. The cranberry without it is pretty tart. It also acts as a thickener, but too much would need to be balanced back out, if only by more mustard.

To the sauce I add pieces of kielbasa, thinly sliced coins, as much as I can manage. Cooked kielbasa! Obviously if you were starting from uncooked, you would want it to cook before saucing and finishing it off. I like the kielbasa to simmer on low heat in the sauce for long enough to darken and add its flavor to the sauce. How the sauce tastes before adding kielbasa is nothing like how it will taste, so use caution when you taste it before adding the meat and want to panic. The kielbasa, after a while, almost candies in the sauce.

I serve it over white rice. The beauty of this is you soak the rice with lots of sauce and put limited kielbasa on top, then the flavor is all in the rice and the rice becomes like eating meat. To add some kind of veggie, I normally have corn as a side. Tonight I also made butternut squash. I love this time of year! Butternut for 79¢ a pound yesterday.

I use Hillshire Farm kielbasa. One package, 14 oz, will do, but I generally use 1.5 to 2 packages worth. The beef kind can be used but has a different taste and texture. This has gotten rather high in price. Before Market Basket essentially shut down last year, it was routinely $2.99 and sales could be less. Once they opened, it was one of the things that was higher, be it because of supplier issues or needing to make up for the cost of being closed. Now a rare sale is $2.99, but they have large packs, equivalent to three regular ones, that are a much better buy. That makes it easier to make larger amounts.

Rice is cheap and overall it’s a reasonable, easy to stretch meal. It’s also quick and easy to make, and hard to mess up.

Allergy Update

Allergies became part of the focus of this site because my son, now eight, turned out to have multiple allergies. Even before we knew that, he had sensitivity to salicylates, which he outgrew. Until he did outgrow them, it border on being “allergic to food.” Not good. He still tends to prefer the things he could always eat, like potato, beans, corn and peas. Worse, he was also sensitive to azo dyes, the degree varying depending on the color. Since he could not drink fruit juice, and could not drink things like Kool-Aid that were colored, we relied heavily on clear Kool-Aid, the watermelon kiwi flavor.

Ultimately he tested allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, bananas, egg (whits and yolks), and dairy. Peanut was the only one for which we never saw evidence outside of testing. Bananas were particularly bad, but as much in a digestive way as anything.

He ultimately outgrew everything but the tree nuts, which are just as clear cut as ever…

In June this year, last day of school, we had to use an epi-pen for the first time in all these years. On the way to school, the crossing guard was giving out Munchkins, and he ate a chocolate one. I am not sure of the veracity of this, but he says his mouth itched during school. After coming home, he had mint chocolate chip ice cream. That;s his favorite, which he has had many times. Later still, he had a fudgesicle from a local supermarket chain, store brand. Following that, he got red faced, hives, had trouble swallowing, and may have had a little trouble breathing. It took two of us to overcome his objection to being injected. Then we had an ambulance ride, somewhat greater treatment than normal, and a rapid recovery and return home. I hadn’t known before then that ranitidine is an antihistimine and is used for allergy treatment. He hated it. Also had trouble with the nebulizer.

Anyway, that was kind of weird, since it appeared he’d reacted to the fudgesicles, which were a new thing, but which weren’t even co-processed in a facility where they could have been exposed to allergens. That was a Friday.

The next Monday, he had more mint chocolate chip ice cream and got covered in hives, but nothing some Benadryl couldn’t handle. Still, that was one of the same foods, all three of which had contained chocolate. Smaller amount of chocoalte… smaller reaction?

We took him for allergy testing for chocolate. In practice this included the entire standard panel of sixty tests, so there were some he’d never been tested for before.

He remained allergic to tree nuts, reacting to three of those, rather than merely two as happened the previous three tests. He was back to reacting to peanut and banana. We’d avoided both of those, just because (actually, he refused to try them, but not a bad idea). He did not react to chocolate/cocoa, but he did test positive for peas and soy. That’s funny, as he eats peas regularly and loves them, and he still uses soy milk, soy butter, and soy margarine. The only time he has ever reacted to soy, long past, was from consuming spoiled soy milk. Fascinating, given the test result, but these are two positives we can ignore.

Since he didn’t test positive to chocolate but we wanted to be sure, he then got the blood test. That was fun. His veins are even harder to find than mine, and he screamed a lot. It took three trips to try getting blood drawn before it actually happened.

Chocolate was negative. Yay! This left a mystery, though. The most logical thing, given the clues and that the prime, overwhelming allergy that remains unambiguously is to tree nuts, is that the mint chocolate chip was contaminated. Perhaps it was worse the first day because so was the Munchkin. Or perhaps because the contamination was fresh. In retrospect, I can picture ice cream with nuts getting scooped, then the same scoop getting reused in the other flavor without being fully cleaned. Kitchen things are the gift of choice for Dad, so for my birthday the kids got me the superlative ice cream scoop of their dreams. One, which takes it rapidly out of service. However, it can be rinsed and used in a second container right afterward. And that’s what must have happened.

There have been no further scares. We’re being more careful about cross-contamination. It’s never been that much of a problem before.

Banana and Peanut Butter

Second daughter has become fond of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Thought they sounded good when I described eating them as a kid. Most people are horrified. I don’t really eat those now, but I love PB and banana together… small gob of PB on each bite of banana. The flavors are completely natural together, in my opinion.

Sadly, peanut butter can give me severe indigestion. Sadly, bananas can give me severe indigestion, only more so. Which makes me wonder if my son gets his banana allergy from me, since the way he reacted to banana was mainly digestive, but over the top. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s essentially a minor allergic reaction on my part.

Anyway, anyone else out there love peanut butter and banana? How about other unusual combos with peanut butter, on bread or not?


I have updated the blog theme, and the version of WordPress, as part of a project to formalize and actually post regularly on a collection of blogs on different topics. Regularly may be relative, since I am in a cooking rut and have less to say than I could, but there should always be something out there to link to and talk about. For instance, I see I used to watch and post about Hell’s Kitchen. I haven’t watched that at all for at least two seasons, and failed to watch the whole thing before that. On the other hand, I have been devouring Chopped episodes on Netflix. Heck, I could even talk about History Channel’s Alone, since food was crucial to the survival scenario, and was quite intriguing at times. Of course, the first season is over, but retrospective? There will be at least one more season, too. There is also allergy news. And food cost news. See? I just have to remember! Since part of the problem was my dismay with how the place looked, the update should help.