Several weeks ago, I finally convinced my partner to watch The Sopranos with me. Before we had even finished the first season, I had an overwhelming urge to put a healthier spin on baked ziti, which Carmella makes at least twice per episode. I had also completely memorized Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro,” which they would play in any scene with Carmella crying (after bringing someone a baked ziti, of course). Anyway, that’s off the subject. I actually really like The Sopranos; I just wish Carmella would have branched out a little.
This is a pretty versatile recipe. The recipe I outline is the turkey sausage version, but vegetarians could easily replace the turkey sausage with TVP (Morningstar Farms crumbles, for instance) or about a pound of roughly chopped mushrooms–making it entirely vegan. Stubborn purists could make it with ground beef or pork sausage. All I ask is that you try it without the dairy. I’ve never been a fan of the grainy texture of ricotta, and this tofu version is actually really tasty (and much smoother/creamier than regular ricotta). You can also taste the mixture of the sauce, meat, and spices instead of the whole thing being a glop of melted cheese. Not to mention, it is much lower in saturated fat and bad cholesterol. So give it a shot!
[Mom–don’t you DARE put cottage cheese in this.]
DAIRY FREE RICOTTA:
*I’m not taking credit for this vegan ricotta, as I based my version off the one at this link. My proportions and seasonings are a little different, though.
1 package/14 oz extra firm tofu.
2-3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 shallot, roughly chopped
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
juice of 1 lemon/approximately 2 tbsp
1/4 cup nutritional yeast (this is not the same thing as bread yeast or even brewer’s yeast)
1/4 cup each of chopped fresh parsley and basil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
*Throw all of the above into a food processor and blend until smooth (if you don’t have a food processor, you could mash it manually with a potato masher, but it won’t have the same creamy texture). You will see it has an appearance very similar to ricotta, but without the grainy texture. It also has a nice tangy flavor.
1 lb whole wheat rigatoni (you can sub penne, but I really prefer rigatoni for this recipe)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1.25 pounds turkey sausage (I love the Jennie-O brand; they come in 5 links. You will need to slice the casing and cook only the sausage inside–don’t cook in link form)
2 shallots, minced (you can sub half a medium yellow onion if no shallots on-hand)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried rosemary
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
[These last four herbs/spices should be put through a spice grinder/coffee grinder to mix them all into a fine powder first. You can also use a mortar/pestle, or even put them into a ziploc baggie and whack them with a meat hammer a few times. Do whatever floats your boat, but the whole fennel seeds and rosemary do need to be broken up somehow.]
1/2 cup of a good red wine (anything you like to drink, really. I used a local barberra). You can also use stock if you don’t have wine on hand.
28 oz canned crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup fresh chopped basil leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp olive oil
*Preheat oven to 375 F.
*Fill large stock pot with water, lightly salted. Bring to a boil for the pasta (I do not put oil in my pasta water, as it makes the pasta slippery and they don’t hold onto sauce as well). Cook pasta to al dente as per your usual pasta-cooking routine.
*Over medium-high heat, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil and brown the turkey sausage until just cooked. Move the sausage to a plate and set aside.
*In the same skillet, put the other tbsp oil. Saute the shallots until translucent–about 5-7 minutes. Then add the garlic and cook until fragrant–about another 1-2 minutes.
*Add the dried herb/spice mixture. Stir around pan until browned and fragrant.
*Add the wine and deglaze the pan. Scrape up the bits of sausage and dried herbs spices. The wine should cook down very quickly.
*Add the crushed tomatoes (this is also the point at which the pasta water should be boiling, so start boiling the pasta). Mix well, and lower heat to medium-low. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
*Stir in the basil until wilted, salt as needed, and remove sauce from heat. The pasta should also be ready at this point.
*Mix together ingredients for topping in small bowl.
*In a 9×12 baking dish, ladle out about 1/2 of the sauce. Strain the pasta and layer on top of the sauce carefully.
*Spoon the fake ricotta over the pasta evenly.
*Pour in remainder of the sauce.
*Sprinkle topping mixture over the top.
*Bake uncovered at 375 for 30-40 minutes, until the bread crumb mixture is a deep golden brown.
*Remove from oven and allow to sit 10-15 minutes.