Baked Ziti with Sausage Tomato Sauce and Béchamel

Recipe by Nancy Johnson; Wine Commentary by Gary Twining.

Try to find loose sausage meat, but if you can’t, remove the casings from Italian sausages and break into pieces. If you like things spicier, use hot Italian sausage. San Marzano tomatoes are grown in the rich volcanic soil of Pompeii and are my top choice whenever cooking with canned tomatoes. The combo of carrot, onion and celery, or mirepoix, is the aromatic base of many dishes. Although Béchamel has a fancy name, it’s one of the easiest French sauces to make.

Sausage Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound sweet Italian sausage

1 carrot, peeled and minced

1 onion, peeled and minced

1 rib celery, minced

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef

2 TBS tomato paste

1 (28-oz) can San Marzano crushed tomatoes

Salt and pepper, to taste

Béchamel Sauce

4 TBS butter

5 TBS flour

1 1/2 cups milk

1/4 tsp nutmeg

Salt and pepper, to taste


1 1/2 pounds ziti

1 TBS softened butter

2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Make the Sausage Tomato Sauce: Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the sausage meat and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove sausage and set aside. Add carrots, onions and celery. Sauté until softened about 10 minutes. Add beef and sauté until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and reserved sausage, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour or until sauce is thickened. Season with salt and pepper.

 Make the Béchamel: In a large saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt butter. Whisk in flour and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture begins to bubble, about 2 minutes. Continue whisking while adding milk in a steady stream. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking, until sauce is thick and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Set aside.

 Build the Baked Ziti: Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Cook ziti in a large pot of salted water according to package directions. Drain. Return ziti to cooking pot. Stir in Sausage Tomato Sauce. Set aside.

 Spread softened butter in a 4-quart oval baking dish to coat. Add half the ziti mixture. Pour half the Béchamel sauce over the pasta, gently spreading with spatula. Add the remaining ziti mixture and then top with remaining Béchamel.  Sprinkle mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top. Bake until golden and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving. Serves 8.

Gary: Béchamel is a white sauce that will mellow the acidity of the tomatoes and reduce any heat or spicy flavors in the sausage.  I would look for a flavorful white wine or a light red with some acidity. From Italy try a Gavi, Greco or Fiano; from the Rhone a white blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier; or a Torrontes from Argentina. A dry rosé would also be a pleasant choice. For reds select an Italian Montepulciano, dry Lambrusco or Barbera, or look to Austria for a Blaufränkisch.

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