I moved into my second apartment somewhat slowly, having learned some – if not all – of the lessons of my first apartment, an unfortunate dump in a tenement building, with a living room so tiny that if you sat on the futon and lifted your legs parallel to the floor, your feet would rest comfortably against the facing wall. Its sole redeeming quality? A convenient location.
What my second apartment lacked in convenience – it was a twenty-minute walk from the nearest subway station, an exercise regimen I wish I still had – it made up for in space: Two large bedrooms, a huge L-shaped living room, enough space for a second dining table in the kitchen.
My roommate and I didn’t have much in the way of furniture – certainly nothing resembling two tables – but we did have lots of ideas, and our landlord gamely went along with them, letting us remove the hideous 1970s shag carpeting, loaning us a small sander that was meant for edging but which we used to refinish the floors of the entire apartment. Friends chipped in with hand-me-down furniture, and soon our apartment was fully equipped with an eye-popping blend of vividly patterned sofas and battered chrome thrift store tables, resting atop the gleaming wood floors.
Each time a truck hit a pothole on the Expressway behind the building, the building shook slightly – we didn’t notice the sound after the first few days, but we did notice that each night, when we came home, the pictures that had earlier hung neatly on the walls now hung at odd angles. We didn’t consider it a problem, though – whoever came home first simply walked around straightening the pictures.
On Saturday mornings, the noise of the trucks through the back windows woke us up early, but on Sundays, we were too tired to care, or maybe the trucks weren’t there – either way, we slept in. Sometime around noon, we would rouse ourselves and head over for the happily named Sunshine Diner, which served breakfast all day, if you knew how to order it: The default menu was written in Polish, while one written in English would arrive at the golden formica tables only on request.
The eggs came with kielbasa. Pierogies were an option, while grits – to the eternal dismay of my southern roommate – were not.
Though most of my neighborhood was Polish, my landlord was not. He was a Hispanic cop named Ozzie, and though his wife was named Yolanda, we called her Harriet – accidentally at first, then as a kind of running joke that she liked once we explained it to her. The landlord was taking college classes at night, so that he would be eligible for a promotion, and on learning that I worked for a magazine, asked if I could help him with his term papers. They rented out the best apartments in the building, and occupied a windowless finished basement, where we sat together in the evenings. As Yolanda made dinner, I would review each page as Ozzie typed it, sometimes asking questions, but usually just correcting his punctuation and spelling and moving a few words here or there so that it all sounded better. When the paper and the meal were done, the typewriter was removed from the kitchen table, and we all ate together.
I loved Yolanda’s chicken and rice, but even more, I loved her baked ziti.
I only lived there a year – my roommate moved back to the south, leaving me unable to pay the rent myself. When I had my own kitchen again, I tried to make something like Yolanda’s baked ziti, but it was never the same – I was never watching when she made it, so I didn’t know what the she added to the pot, and whatever it was, it most decidedly was not sauce from a jar or overcooked noodles.
So, for many years, there was no baked ziti to be had, until I happened to spy a recipe on my feedly from the generally reliable smitten kitchen – so I gave it a shot. I didn’t have any ziti, which seems like a key failing, but of course you can use a pound of any sort of tubular pasta (I went with penne).
The instructions are simple enough and there are a couple of crucial details – first, you really do want to undercook the pasta. She suggests about two minutes less than the package directions call for; this worked well in not producing a dish full of mushy noodles at the end. The other recommendation is to be generous with the seasonings if using ground beef, which gave me license to go a little nuts with the red pepper flakes, which I recommend doing. The other option is to use Italian sausage (removed from the casings, of course), and adjust the spices accordingly.
The dish turned out perfectly – not at all like Yolanda’s, but satisfying and warming on a rainy Seattle night. The Child thought it was very good, and suggested I add it to the list of things I make that she’ll actually eat. As an added bonus, it makes a nice lunch the next day, or the next several days – or enough to feed a crowd, if you’ve got a crowd to feed.
- olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped small
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound ground beef, casings removed
- two 14.5 ounce cans diced tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Red pepper flakes, to taste
- 1 pound pasta, cooked al dente and drained
- ¾ pound mozzarella, coarsely grated
- ⅔ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Cook pasta until al dente,about 2 minutes less than the suggested cooking time. Drain the pasta, reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Rinse under cold water, and set aside. Reserve ½ cup cooking water, then drain pasta. Rinse under cool water, and set aside.
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat, then coat with olive oil. Add the onions and simmer about five minutes, then add the garlic and cook a minute or two more. Add the oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt, then the ground beef, cooking 6-8 minutes, or until it has lost all its redness.
- Add tomatoes, stirring to combine, and cook for five to ten minutes, pressing with the back of a spoon to help crush the tomatoes and break up any overly large chunks of meat. Adjust seasonings as needed, and simmer until it has a saucy consistency. Add some of the reserved pasta liquid if it gets too dry, too fast. and stir to combine. Stir in drained pasta, mixing well.
- Pour half of pasta mixture into a 9×13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with half of each cheese, then pour in the remaining pasta, and top with the remaining cheese. Bake in heated oven for 30 minutes.