Baked ziti, a hearty combination of pasta, tomato sauce and gooey cheese, can be time-consuming and fussy, between making the sauce, boiling the pasta and then assembling and baking the dish. We were looking to streamline this dish, achieving the same delicious results in less time and without watching over, and dirtying, a multitude of pots.
Our first priority was the sauce. We used a hot cast-iron skillet to get a nice blistery char on grape tomatoes, bringing a deep, caramelized flavor to the sauce. We further bolstered the sauce by sautéing garlic, red pepper flakes and tomato paste with the charred tomatoes. We then mashed everything to a coarse consistency and diluted it with water so that we could cook the ziti right in the sauce. Cooking the ziti in the skillet with the sauce saved us from using an extra pot, and the starch released from the pasta during cooking helped thicken the sauce nicely.
We finished the sauce by stirring in some basil and Parmesan. We then sprinkled the whole dish with mozzarella and broiled it in the oven. Being able to go from the stovetop to the broiler was another perk of the cast-iron pan, and the dish needed only 5 minutes in the oven for a perfectly melty, browned cheese layer on top. You can substitute penne for the ziti. Do not use fat-free mozzarella here.
1½ pounds grape tomatoes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon tomato paste
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
12 ounces (3¾ cups) ziti
3 cups water, plus extra as needed
1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (½ cup)
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)
Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Heat 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Toss tomatoes with oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Add tomatoes to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly charred and blistered, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, tomato paste and pepper flakes, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Off heat, coarsely mash tomatoes using potato masher.
Stir in pasta and water and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to vigorous simmer, cover and cook, stirring often, until pasta is tender, 15 to 18 minutes.
Stir in Parmesan and adjust sauce consistency with extra hot water as needed. Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mozzarella. Transfer skillet to oven and broil until cheese is melted and spotty brown, about 5 minutes. Serve.
Add 2 anchovies, rinsed and minced, to skillet with garlic and increase pepper flakes to ½ teaspoon. Substitute ½ cup dry red wine for ½ cup of water. Substitute ¼ cup minced fresh parsley for basil and stir ½ cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives and 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and minced, into cooked pasta with Parmesan.