In my mind, there are only two types of prepared ziti: baked and unbaked. Baked, of course, is far superior, so I suppose I could actually say that, for me, there is baked ziti and baked ziti only. After that, it doesn’t much matter.
My all-time favorite ziti is from Sbarro. It’s baked in a tomato sauce that’s yuummied-up with ricotta and Romano cheeses, and I try to recreate it often at home. But pastas so often have red sauces that I make a conscious effort to prepare non-red-sauced pasta when possible, such as this Baked Ziti with Chicken, Veggies, and Herbs.
This pasta is packed with goodies: basil, thyme, parsley, broccoli, and artichoke hearts. It’s baked in a creamy sauce that has a touch of Parmesan cheese, and—here’s my favorite part—it’s topped with a crunchy breadcrumb crust. Behold:
I love that crust! It makes the dish for me. And you must use fresh breadcrumbs! I considered myself to have reached a new culinary plateau when I discovered the advantages of topping dishes with fresh rather than dried breadcrumbs. The taste is so much better, and you end up with a crunchy golden topping rather than, well, a layer of dried breadcrumbs. Panko might work well as a topping too, but since I always have a few slices of bread that I need to use up, I always use fresh. About three slices of white bread, crusts removed and run through the food processor, will get you what you need for this dish.
This dish makes 4-6 servings, depending on how ravenous the appetites.
Baked Ziti with Chicken, Veggies, and Herbs
Salt and pepper
1/2 pound ziti
1 chicken breast, split lengthwise, or 2 breast halves
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups heavy cream, half-and-half, or whole milk
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, divided
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 12-oz. package frozen broccoli, thawed
1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts in water, halved, or 1 box frozen, thawed
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Cook pasta until just al dente in boiling salted water, about 9 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Sprinkle both sides of chicken with salt and pepper. Drizzle a thin coating of olive oil in a large pan and sauté chicken until just cooked through, about 4-5 minutes per side, depending on their thickness. Remove from pan and set aside.
If needed, add extra olive oil to skillet so that you have about 3 tablespoons. Sauté onion until translucent. Add garlic and cook a minute more. Add flour and, stirring constantly, cook for one minute. Whisk in cream and stock and, over medium heat, stir frequently until sauce begins to bubble and thicken. Stir in 1/4 cup of Parmesan, thyme, basil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 a teaspoon of pepper.
Slice chicken into pieces that approximate the size of the ziti. Add to pan, along with any drippings and the broccoli and artichoke hearts. Combine, then stir in reserved ziti. Pour into a greased casserole dish.
In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan, parsley, and melted butter. Scatter evenly over pasta.
Bake in preheated oven for 20-30 minutes, or until edges are bubbling and topping is golden brown.