1 pound ziti
1 pound baby spinach
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Splash of water
1 pound bulk hot Italian sausage (I use my homemade version)
1 small onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 cups reserved pasta water
1 cup whole milk ricotta
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus a bit more for sprinkling on top
12 ounces (3 cups) finely shredded mozzarella
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta per package directions. Drain over a large bowl to reserve the pasta water. Set pasta and water aside.
Set a large deep skillet over medium heat. Put the spinach, 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper in the pan along with just a splash of water. Cover and let the spinach steam and wilt. Uncover to stir occasionally, to incorporate the salt and pepper and to make sure no stray leaves are drying up against the side of the pan. Once it is all wilted, remove the spinach to a cutting board. Use paper towels or a clean kitchen towel to soak up as much liquid from the spinach as possible (you may need to let it cool for a few minutes). Finely chop the spinach and set it aside.
In the same deep skillet, still over medium heat, add the sausage and saute, breaking into small chunks with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink. Scoop the sausage out of the pan into a separate bowl, leaving the bottom of the pan coated with fat. Add the onion and cook over medium, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the minced garlic, salt, oregano, thyme, basil and crushed red pepper flakes to the pan. Stir for about 1 minute until everything is nice and fragrant, then add the crushed tomatoes, 1 cup of reserved pasta water and the cooked sausage. Bring just to a bubble, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Uncover, add another cup of the pasta water and simmer on low for another 30 minutes. Remove from heat.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
(Note: If your pasta is stuck together at this point, put it back in a colander and pour the remaining pasta water over it. It should become unstuck. One of the best kitchen tips I ever learned!)
In a large bowl (or in the pot you cooked the pasta in), combine the pasta with the spinach, ricotta and 1 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pour in the meat sauce and stir gently until thoroughly combined.
In a 9×13 pan, spoon in about 1/3 of the pasta mixture, then top with 1 cup of finely shredded mozzarella. Do this twice more, layer of pasta, layer of mozzarella, then finish by grating a little bit more Parm-Reg over the top. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, or until all the cheese has melted and the top has just slightly crisped.
Let cool for about 5 minutes before cutting.
Spectacular. Period. Just a couple of cooking notes:
1) This should really be called baked pasta since I have made it with penne in these particular photos, rigatoni a couple of other times, ziti when I can find it. Use whatcha got.
2) You may notice that there is no olive oil in this recipe. You shouldn’t need any. The grease remaining after cooking the sausage, about 1 1/2 tablespoons, is plenty for cooking the onion and garlic and so full of flavor as it is. Pork fat is my favorite cooking medium and woefully underrated, I think.
3) You can play with this as you see fit, in terms of what meats or greens you put in. I strongly prefer sausage and spinach, though. Wait, let me rephrase: I have a mad, passionate, long-standing love affair with sausage and spinach and I feel like one without the other on pizza or in pasta is a damn tragedy. Ya. That’s better.