Cooking while on vacation is a great time to slow down and enjoy the process, but there can be some limitations. You might be in a rental kitchen with minimal equipment, or need to feed a crowd on a budget — that's where the tried-and-true combination of pasta, sauce, and cheese always wins the day. Throw in some Italian sausage and sweet peppers, and the smell of this baked casserole will lure everybody into the kitchen even though the sun's still up.
Think of this baked ziti as an easier version of lasagna, and recruit some extra hands into the kitchen to prepare it — everyone's got time since they're on vacation, right? Put people to work slicing peppers, cooking sausage, grating cheese, and cooking pasta. Many hands make for light work, and you'll get everything layered into a baking dish in no time.
While the baked ziti is in the oven, all you need to do is throw together a salad, or steam (or grill!) some vegetables to serve with it. A glass of nice red wine also wouldn't be amiss here.
The beauty of baked ziti is that it can even be prepared ahead of time — just make the sauce or fully assemble it and throw it right into the cooler for the trip out. You can also bring it fully baked or even frozen so that all it needs is a stint in the oven, skipping a trip to the grocery store and letting you relax into an extended happy hour.
Italian Sausage and Peppers Baked Ziti
For the pasta and sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound uncooked Italian sausage, casings removed
2 medium bell peppers, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
4 cups marinara sauce (about 36 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dried ziti or penne pasta
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces shredded mozzarella and/or provolone cheese (about 2 cups)
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 375°F. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over medium-high heat and make the sauce.
Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up the meat into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the bell peppers, onion, garlic, and pepper flakes; season with salt and pepper; and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the marinara and 1/2 teaspoon salt, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat.
When the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook until just tender. While the pasta is cooking, stir the ricotta, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, and salt together in a small bowl.
When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander or strainer. Return the pasta to the now-empty pot. Add half of the sauce (about 3 generous cups) and stir until the pasta is well-coated. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Add the ricotta mixture and fold it in, leaving big pockets of ricotta here and there.
Transfer half of the pasta mixture into a 9x13-inch baking dish and spread into an even layer. Evenly sprinkle with half of the mozzarella or provolone. Top with the remaining pasta in an even layer.
Pour the remaining sauce over the pasta and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle the surface evenly with the remaining mozzarella or provolone and remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan.
Bake uncovered until the edges are bubbling and the cheese is completely melted and browned in spots, about 30 minutes. Remove the baking dish to a wire rack and let cool 15 minutes before serving.
- Make ahead: This dish can be assembled and refrigerated, covered in foil, up to 2 days in advance. Bake covered for 15 minutes, then uncover and bake for 30 minutes more.
- Two smaller casseroles: This can be prepared in 2 (8x8-inch) baking dishes instead, which is great if you want to freeze half for a future meal.
- Freezing: Baked ziti can be frozen right in the baking dish for up to 2 months — just let it cool completely and wrap it tightly in aluminum foil first. Bake straight from the freezer covered with foil for 1 hour, then uncover and bake for 15 minutes more.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.