Baked ziti (ziti al forno) is a true comfort food to me. A warm, baked, cheesy pasta dish bubbling from the oven is true comfort food. Baked pasta dishes such as this have been around since the Middle Ages where nobles served such dishes at banquets. Once popular all over Italy, these days it is considered more of a staple dish for southern Italian towns such as Sicily and Campania. Here in the United States, baked ziti has remained a standby in Italian-American homes and restaurants for generations.
My recipe for baked ziti makes whipping up this dish pretty easy. This is a “no-boil” recipe, meaning you can assemble the entire dish with uncooked pasta and then pop it in the oven to cook. I added a simple bison-pork meatball to this recipe to add some protein into this pasta dish, making it even more satisfying. As with all recipes that call for tomato sauce, I prefer and encourage everyone to make their own sauce. My simple tomato sauce is pretty easy and does not include added sugar–a common ingredient in store-bought options. That said, it takes a bit of time and planning. Weekdays are taxing as it is, schedules are packed; I get it. You can absolutely substitute store-bought sauce, which makes this one-pot meal even faster to whip up. (My favorite jarred sauce is Mario Batali’s Marinara Sauce.)
For this recipe, I actually use dried rigatoni pasta instead of traditional ziti because, to me, the ridges on a rigatoni noodle allow for the sauce to adhere slightly better. You can, however, use traditional ziti noodles or any other tubular pasta, such as penne–the cooking time should not change.
I am a huge meatball fan; honestly, I could eat meatballs and sauce everyday. There are many ways to make good meatballs, depending on what you want to use them for. In this recipe, I like to use ground bison and a little bit of ground pork. Bison is one of the leanest, most nutritious red meats available. Bison are typically raised on open ranches and fed grass. As a result, the meat contains less (if any) artificial antibiotics, hormones and steroids, and the production is more eco-friendly. It is also one of the lowest-calorie meats: a 1/4 pound bison burger contains about 146 calories, about 20% less than a similarly sized ground beef burger. Ground bison is also lean and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, making it a go-to for me in many recipes that call for ground beef. Being that I love meatballs as much as I do, adding these to my baked ziti seems perfect.
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No-Boil Baked Ziti With Bison Meatballs
- 1 recipe of my Simple Tomato Sauce, or 1 16-ounce store-bought low sugar tomato basil or marinara sauce
- 1 pound ground bison
- 1/4 pound ground pork
- 3/4 cup plain panko bread crumbs
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 lb. dried rigatoni pasta
- 1 lb. mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 1/2-3 cups cold water
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves for garnish
- Step 1 Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Step 2 In a medium mixing bowl add the ground bison, ground pork, bread crumbs, egg, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Mix well to incorporate.
- Step 3 Using your hands, form the mixture into balls about 1-inch in diameter. Set aside.
- Step 4 Using a 9×13-inch baking dish, spread half the uncooked rigatoni in one layer on the bottom of the dish.
- Step 5 Place half the uncooked meatballs down next. Drizzle the olive oil over the pasta. Spoon about half the tomato sauce evenly over the noodles and meatballs. Next, spread out half of the mozzarella, filling in the gaps between the noodles and meatballs.
- Step 6 Repeat the layering process with the remaining ingredients, ending with the cheese. If you need to hold this dish and bake it later, cover and refrigerate at this point.
- Step 7 When ready to bake, add 2 1/2 cups of water to the layered ziti dish. Press down lightly with a spatula so the liquid goes everywhere. Add an additional 1/2 cup of water if needed to mostly cover the pasta. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. This is important as it will help steam/cook the pasta. Place on the center rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour until the rigatoni is tender and cooked through. Remove the foil and cook uncovered for an additional 5-10 minutes.
- Step 8 Turn the oven onto broil and lightly cook the ziti for a few seconds until lightly browned and the sauce is bubbling. Watch closely, as it will burn very easily.
- Step 9 Let cool slightly. Garnish with whole basil leaves and serve.