September 25, 2008

Baked Ziti with Rapini and Chicken Meatballs

1 lb ziti, cooked to package instructions

cheese mixture:
15 oz ricotta
1/4 cup shredded Italian cheese
10 oz rapini, chopped and steamed
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 egg

1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
28 oz canned ground tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter

1 lb ground chicken
1 slice sandwich bread, crusts removed
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup grated Italian cheese*
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 egg
1/2 onion, minced
matzo meal or bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, mix together the cheese mixture ingredients. Set aside. In a large skillet, heat the butter and olive oil. Saute the onion and garlic until softened and fragrent. Add the tomatoes and simmer on low. Meanwhile, put the milk and the bread in a saucepan, heat low. Mash bread with fork after it has absorbed all milk. Remove from heat and cool. In a bowl, knead together the chicken, basil, onion, vinegar, egg, olive oil, cheese and the bread/milk mush, salt and pepper. Pour the matzo meal in a shallow bowl. Shape the meat into medium sized balls and roll all sides in the matzo meal. Place on a broiler pan and broil, turning once, until pretty much cooked through. Place the meatballs in the sauce and continue to simmer about 5 minutes. Toss the cooked pasta and the sauce together. Pour half of the mixture in a 13x9 baking dish. Dot with cheese filling. Top with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with additional shredded cheese if desired. Bake, covered in foil, for about 10 minutes, then remove the foil and cook an additional 10 minutes or until bubbly.

*I actually used this which is a mixture of Mozzarella, Provolone, Parmesan, Fontina, Romano and Asiago but any one of those cheese would work well.

My thoughts:
This is the latest result of my baked pasta tinkering. We had a pound of ground chicken I wanted to use and thought it might be fun to make meatballs. The great thing about ground chicken is that it is really easy to flavor with herbs and sauces and it is much lighter tasting than even really low fat ground beef.

Tossing the meatballs into a baked pasta dish was a stroke of genius, a nice change from our usual but not more time consuming or fussy. I also liked that if I didn't want a lot of meat, I could just take less meatballs since the meat wasn't evenly distributed in the sauce. Perfect if you live in a household where some people are more meat eaters than others. We love, love rapini and adding it to the dish makes this a one-dish meal.

The recipe is also very budget friendly-it easily feeds 4-6 and uses simple, inexpensive ingredients. Ground chicken is only about $2.50lb and you can't get more affordable than a dish that incorperates dried pasta and canned tomatoes.

This dish also reheats exceptionally well the next day.