Baked Spinach Ziti and My Better Than Bottled Marinara

As I promised, here is my Round 2 Recipe to use up the leftovers from Spinach Ricotta Scrambled Eggs to make a hearty pasta casserole. Now that Spinach Ricotta Scrambled Eggs is your favorite go to breakfast ;) your fridge should be stocked with spinach and ricotta and if you add a pound of pasta, mozzarella, and my Better Than Bottled (and just as easy) Marinara Sauce you have a meal that could feed an entire family or be great leftovers for the next couple of days! I grew up on Ziti, its like an Italian Mother's version of Mac and Cheese but I tweaked the Italian comfort food classic by adding a hidden layer of baby spinach leaves so I could feel just a tad bit healthier with my plate of carbs and cheese!! 
The star of this recipe though is the homemade Marinara sauce. It is my Grandpa's recipe who was an amazing Italian Chef and owned a restaurant in New York. The recipes he passed down to our family are my most cherished and respected recipes. He lived with my family when I was growing up and every night he would make huge delicious feasts and even  spoil me with homemade Italian pastries for my tea parties with my stuffed animals. I truly believe I inherited his love and passion for cooking and hope that one day I can be even as half as good of a chef as he was!! 

Now back to the Marinara Sauce. I promise you this marinara sauce is so easy to make and so delicious that you will be forever converted from bottled! The main work is chopping up lots and lots of garlic, but its what makes the sauce so amazing so if you really can't be bothered doing it by hand buy a Chop-Chop and then you really have no work left at all. 
Also make sure to buy San Marzano tomatoes from Italy! If you want to make your sauce taste authentic, buy authentic!
The best part about making this marinara is breaking up the whole tomatoes in your hand, you can get some of your life frustrations out on those bad boys. And who doesn't like embracing their childhood habits of playing with their food. 
And with just the perfect amount of herbs and spices and some time on the stove, you have the freshest, tastiest Better Than Bottled Marinara Sauce! Seriously you have to give this recipe a try! Its amazing over just a plain bowl of pasta, as pizza sauce, topped over ravioli, or in my Baked Spinach Ziti.
What I love about ziti is that is has the same delicious taste as lasagna but with half the effort. All you do is boil a pound of ziti or whatever pasta you have on hand (I actually used mostaccioli) and toss the hot pasta with a good amount of both marinara sauce and ricotta cheese. This makes a delicious pink sauce that's good enough to eat already but try to exercise some will power ;) Reserve half of that pasta and stir in some baby spinach leaves so they begin to wilt down.

Now for the assembly. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with just enough marinara sauce so the bottom won't stick to the pan.
Then add the half of your pasta with the spinach mixed in to the dish. I like to add the spinach to the bottom layer of pasta that way it can just heat up and not get too crunchy when its it in the oven like it would if it was on the top layer.
Then add a layer of sliced mozzarella cheese. You could grate the cheese too if you like a more even layer...but I find grating mozzarella to be a unnecessary time consuming step because it all melts around even if you just slice it and I like sometimes finding that extra cheesy bite :)
Now add a couple small scoops of ricotta cheese. You could also go crazy and layer some parmesan cheese as well and make a three cheese pasta-I won't judge!!
And to complete this layer, add a couple spoonfuls of marinara sauce. I don't like the to add too much sauce because it can tend to get a little soupy and you can always add as much sauce as you want on top of each serving.
Add the remaining pasta, some extra slices of mozzarella, and a couple spoonfuls of marinara and you're ready to pop that baby in the oven!
And after 25 minutes covered, and 10 minutes uncovered you get this cheesy delight for dinner!!!
I hope this pasta dish becomes a comfort food classic in your home like it has in mine.

Better Than Bottled Marinara Sauce

2 28 oz cans of Whole Peeled San Marzano Tomatoes
1 15 oz can of Tomato Sauce
12 Garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tbsp dried Basil
1/2 tsp. dried Oregano
1 tbsp Fresh Italian Parsley
1 tsp Crushed Red Pepper (increase amount of red pepper for an Arrabiata sauce)

Mush up whole tomatoes and sauce with hands in separate bowl until there are no large pieces of tomatoes (small pieces of tomatoes are ok). Saute garlic in olive oil in a medium sized sauce pan over medium heat. Add tomatoes to garlic. 
Cook until it comes to a boil, then turn down heat to low. Add spices, being sure to crush the dried spices in your hand to allow the flavors to release quicker. Let simmer for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Make sure to taste to adjust seasonings if needed. 

Spinach Baked Ziti

1 lb ziti or desired pasta 
8 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced
10 oz ricotta 
4-6 oz baby spinach 
Better than Bottled Marinara Sauce 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Cook pasta one minute less than package directs because it will continue to cook in the oven. Toss hot pasta with 6 oz of the ricotta and 1 to 1 1/2 cup marinara sauce. The sauce should turn into a pink color.

Reserve half of the pasta mixture, and to the other half stir in the spinach so it can begin to wilt.

Coat the bottom of a ovenproof baking dish with just enough marinara sauce so the bottom layer of pasta will not stick. Pour in the pasta with spinach. Add a layer of 3/4 of the sliced mozzarella, small spoonfuls of the remaining ricotta cheese, and spoonfuls of the marinara. Add the remaining pasta to cover the spinach and cheese layer. Top with the remaining mozzarella slices and a couple spoonfuls of the marinara. 

Cover with aluminum foil and cook for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 10 minutes or until the Ziti is bubbly and the cheese has melted on top.  Serve with extra marinara sauce.