“I don’t think I ever did learn to cook, honestly. I just made up a bunch of stuff as I went along. It’s something I started doing out of necessity. Either because I was trying to impress somebody, or because I created small people who were hungry and I was obligated to feed them.
I started making baked ziti with my mom; it’s a New Jersey thing. Baked ziti is almost more popular than lasagna in Jersey and I’m not sure why, except that you don’t have to be as patient with the pasta. Plus New Jersey is crawling with Italian people. I’m not one of them, but I grew up with them. Lots of Irish and lots of Italians—lots of Catholics, and they all like to eat and drink. Some more than others. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of cheese. More than two pounds of cheese in this dish, which I’m not apologetic about at all. I’m not shy with the garlic either, especially in the wintertime, because it keeps me from getting sick. I may smell awful, but I’m healthy and awful. Healthy and stinky is fine with me.
Both my kids are under the age of seven so they’re both kind of picky. I started making different dinners for everybody. I got over that real quick. Now I try to make sure there is at least a side dish the kids can eat, so they’ll eat that, and then try the thing that I’ll make them try that I know they’re not going to like, because you have to try it at least once.
If you can find it, if you can muster it, if you can grow it, if you can at all do it—fresh basil. I keep a pot in the window of my kitchen and I kill it often, by being me. I can keep mammals alive, plants not so much. My dogs always live past their 15th birthday, my kids are in the 90th percentile for height and weight, but I can look at a plant sideways and kill it.
My oldest son is six and in kindergarten, thank God. My youngest is two and a half. My kids eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in school. I don’t think I could keep people alive if not for peanut butter. If you’ve got a peanut allergy you’re going to die on my watch.
I try to cook things I can use more than once. Make enough, so there’s another meal we can get out of it. I’m big on the leftovers, big into cooking once and eating twice. Because honestly, there are so many other things I need to do.
I cannot say this enough—don’t overcook the pasta! In fact, undercook it. It should be less than al dente, so it’s thirsty when it goes in the oven. Otherwise it won’t absorb the sauce, and it’ll be past ready to eat when you take it out.
I learned the starts of this recipe when I lived in Jersey, but I didn’t start refining it until I got here. Not being afraid is what happened. Not being afraid to experiment and use more spices. Jersey can be a puritanical development, so it can be a bit tame, a bit conservative. In New Orleans, the motto is “If less is more, imagine how much more more would be.” There is no shame in going a little bit too far.
I like cooking, I think primarily because when I’m in the kitchen, everybody leaves me alone. I can listen to music and I don’t have to find a toy or a tooth or whatever else has gone missing. Oddly enough, there is sanctuary in the kitchen.
Really good cheese, I like to splurge on. Romano, parmesan, asiago, any of the exotic Italian cheeses. And by exotic I mean expensive. Don’t get that shit in the jar. If you get that shit in the jar, you may just as well not eat. The stuff in the green can. It’s cheese food, it’s what they feed cheese. It says right on the can. No thanks.
I use my hands. It might seem unsavory to some people, but they don’t wear out, they don’t need to be sharpened, and they always do exactly what I tell them to.”
Debbie’s Baked Ziti
1 (15-oz) tub ricotta cheese
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 handfuls fresh spinach, chopped
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound uncooked rigatoni, ziti or any short cut pasta
1 quart red sauce (whatever you like, homemade or not)
4 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
1 pound shredded mozzarella
Mix spinach with ricotta and garlic. Add pepper and salt to taste. Cook pasta according to directions on package, but undercook it by 2-3 minutes. Drain and mix with red sauce, Romano and mozzarella (saving two fistfuls of cheese to sprinkle on the top.) Now for the “dumping, scooping and splashing” stage: Grease a deep pan, about 6” by 9”. Put a thin layer of pasta on the bottom. Cover with ricotta mixture. (Next you can add a layer of sautéed eggplant or cooked fresh sausage.) Add another layer of pasta, then another layer of ricotta. Finish with a layer of pasta. Top with mozzarella cheese. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes.