So maybe you have a date, and it’s finally time to cook for him or her. Or the in-laws are coming. Or maybe you’re wanting to have some girlfriends over to watch Pitch Perfect. Again. Or maybe you just want to treat yo’self. Whatever the reason, there comes a time when one needs to cook an actual meal for actual people. Possibly you want to impress those people. Just a little. Not like bacon-wrapped-filet-mignon-with-truffle-butter-haricot-verts-and-new-potatoes impress. But something more than spaghetti with a jar of Ragu on it.

How about baked ziti? It’s pretty easy and can be cheap. It tastes good. And it is fun to say. Say it with me: zeeee teeeee.

And it wouldn’t hurt to be able to offer a bottle of wine without the nickname “three buck chuck,” right? So, here’s a ziti version that is meant to elevate the dish a bit beyond jarred sauce, but I wanted to keep it cheap so there’s more money left over for wine. I could have added all kinds of shmancy things to make this dish swing dance in your mouth, but here’s a pretty basic version to start. The cool thing about it is that it has a lot of veggies in it, so it is a complete meal on its own. Neato.

For my $10 dinners, I assume you have four things on hand: water, salt, pepper, and olive oil. You’ll use both your oven and the stove. You will need a sheet pan (cookie sheet with sides), a pot, a deep fry pan, and maybe a big bowl. And a knife and cutting board so you can, you know, cut things.

Suzy’s Baked Ziti

Serves 4

Ingredient Cost
½ pound hot Italian sausage (pork or turkey)

1 large onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. Roma tomatoes

1 23 oz can crushed tomatoes

1 T tomato paste

16 oz whole wheat penne pasta

1 10 oz box frozen chopped spinach

1 8 oz package Italian style shredded cheese

1 T Italian Seasoning
















(Yeah, I know it’s $0.24 over $10. These are estimated prices and your total bill might be a bit more or a bit less. It’ll be ok.)

Step 1. You So Saucy!

Preheat your oven to 450°. Cut the Roma tomatoes lengthwise and squish out some of the seeds. Drizzle the pan, the tomatoes, and probably the counter with olive oil. Sprinkle on salt and pepper. Smoosh the tomatoes around a bit to make sure they are evenly coated. Arrange cut side up. Put pan in oven for 25 to 30 minutes until they look caramelized and sort of brown and shriveled. Let cool. Once the tomatoes are cool enough to touch, remove and discard the skins. Set the pan aside to hang out for a bit. Reduce oven temperature to 400°.

While the tomatoes are roasting, dice the onion and mince the garlic. Microwave the box of spinach on high for 1 minute or until it is thoroughly defrosted. Dump the contents into a clean dish towel, draw up the corners of the towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Set aside.

Heat a high sided frying pan over medium. Cook the sausage and onions until the meat isn’t pink and the onions look… cooked. Maybe add some olive oil if the pan looks dry. Add the garlic and stir around a bit. Add the tomato paste and Italian seasoning. Then add the pan of roasted tomatoes including all the juice and add the can of crushed tomatoes. Add some salt and pepper. Press any tomato chunks with the flat side of your spoon to make smaller chunks. Or use an emersion blender if you have one and feel like getting fancy. Turn the heat down to low to simmer for a bit and let the ingredients get to know one another a bit. This is date night after all.

Step 2. If You Like It You Shoulda Put a Lid on It  

In a big pot, probably the biggest you’ve got, fill 2/3 with water. Put a lid on it (this helps it boil faster),   and bring to a boil over high heat. (You could have done this while the tomatoes were roasting if you’re able to multitask.) Once water is boiling, toss in maybe 1 tablespoon of salt. Dump in your dried pasta and cook a minute or two shorter than the recommended cooking time listed on the box. This will probably be like 8 minutes or so. Ladle out maybe 1 cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta.

Step 3. Your Mise en Place are… en Place

Use olive oil to grease a 13×9 pan.  Then, if the pasta pot is big enough, or in your largest mixing bowl, dump in the pasta, the sauce, the spinach (loosened into individual pieces) and a little of the cheese. With either your hands or a big spoon, stir it up until it looks well mixed. Add some cooking liquid if it looks too dry. Taste a bit to see if it needs salt (it probably will). Now dump the whole mess into the greased 13×9 pan. Top with the rest of the cheese. Maybe drizzle some olive oil on top or sprinkle on a bit more Italian seasoning.  Shove the whole shebang into the preheated oven for like 20 to 30 minutes until the cheese looks like you want to dive face-first into it.

Extras. Imagine the Pasta-bilities

Want to make the ziti fancier? Add a small jar of prepared pesto, add more meat(s), add ricotta, add mushrooms, make the sauce from all fresh tomatoes, add wine before it simmers, etc.

Want more than just pasta? Add a bag o’ salad and dressing, add garlic bread or breadsticks, dessert, etc.

Don’t eat pork? Substitute with turkey sausage.

Vegetarian? No problem. Just delete the meat and maybe add more cheeses.

Hate Spinach? Sub in another veggie like shredded carrot which you won’t taste but will add that veggie bulk.

Paleo? Whole30? Use cooked spaghetti squash, increase the meat, delete the cheese, and maybe top with crumbled bacon (it’s good!)

But wait! The Wine!

You can try going to any number of sites online that offer wine recommendations. Most of their recommendations I’ve never heard of and can’t find easily. Instead, I’m going to suggest a few of my favorites you can get at your local Kroger store or a typical liquor store. Because this is pasta with red sauce, I’m going to focus on red wines.

First, I recommend looking at red blends instead of specific grape varietals. I’ve found that for wines in the $15-$20 range, red blends often have a round, drinkable quality that is missing from a merlot or pinot. Vintners just dump all the extra grapes into one batch and see what happens. You can get a tasty bang for your $20 bucks. I’ve been really digging Kendall-Jackson’s red blends, Decoy red blend, and Noble Vines 1 Red Blend lately.

If you want a specific grape, I encourage you to try out Sirah, Malbec, Zinfandel (please note this is not that pink, cloyingly sweet “white zinfandel” that Beringer and Barefoot are known for), and Pinot Noir. I find that new wine drinkers often gravitate to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon just because they sound familiar. Try something new!  Inexpensive options abound for these other grapes, and truly, you are more likely to find a solid bottle picking a different kind of grape.

One last thought about wine. One of the perks to having $20 bucks to try out new wine is that you may be able to try TWO $10 bottles, particularly if there are sales (e.g. Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel and, surprisingly, Barefoot Malbec). And let’s face it, if you open both bottles to, ahem, let them breath, after a while you’re not going to care if it isn’t great wine.


3 thoughts on “$10 Meal. $20 Bottle of Wine.

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