Baked Ziti is a comfortable classic. This version is a bit healthier with fresh mozzarella as the only cheese. We also make a recommendation to add some kale or spinach if you want more veggies. The sausage (meatballs) are a fun protein addition that your kids will enjoy, because who doesn’t love a meatball?
Break the sausage from it’s package and roll between your hands about 20-30 small bite size meatballs. Turn your oven on broil.
On a slightly oiled baking sheet place your mini sausage meatballs with space between each. Broil in the oven until lightly browned on top. Since they are small, and being broiled. this should only take about 5 minutes. Remember they will also cook a bit more later on in the process so you are worried about color, not about being full cooked. Pro-Tip - Using a broiled for this step can cause smoke and if not watched, burning. Be careful to watch your meatballs. If you are not confident with the broiler you can bake at 400 degrees, for about 10-15 minutes or brown your meatballs in the pot you plan to cook your sauce on medium high heat. All options work. While your meatballs are cooking, chop your onion, garlic, and, if using, your kale/spinach. When meatballs are done proceed to next step.. .
Which is, make the sauce/bring pasta water to a boil. Add a glug of olive oil along with the sausage fat from your baking pan into the bottom of a deep pot (ideally enameled cast iron). If you browned your meatballs in the pot you are going to use for the sauce, remove the meatballs to plate and proceed. Turn pan on medium high heat and add onions. Sauté for 5 minutes stirring regularly, then add garlic, sauté 1 more minute. Next add the entire can of tomatoes and their juices. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to medium/low, cook for 15 minutes. While sauce is cooking fill a second large pot with water, salt liberally and put on a high heat.
Next add the meatballs back to the sauce, back to a simmer and cook another 20 minutes. While sauce is cooking heat your oven to 400 if it is not already still heated.
Optional for Kale only - If using kale drop into your boiling pasta water (do not add pasta yet). Stir and cook for 2-3 minutes until kale starts to get tender. Remove from pot with a spider, tongues, strainer etc. (leaving the water as you still need it for pasta). Drain kale and add into your simmering sauce and meatballs. If using spinach (which cooks more quickly, you can skip the boiled water step and add directly into your sauce for the last 5 minutes of cooking.
When water is boiling and after you finished cooking kale in it (if you did) drop in your pasta and cook to the package instructions to al dente. Remove and drain.
Add pasta to the sauce and meatballs along with 1/2 of your mozzarella ball torn into pieces. Stir to combine. Pour the mixture into a baking dish that’s at least 2 1/2 inches deep. Top with the remaining meatball sauce and mozzarella tearing again into pieces. If you have pecorino or parmesan cheese on hand, feel free to grate some liberally on top as an optional step. Place uncovered baking dish oven and bake until the cheese is melty. For a crispy top, turn your broiler on for the last two minutes of baking. Keep a close eye so it does not burn. Seriously... you could ruin the whole thing if you walk away.
Remove and let cool for 5-10 minutes. Top with some basil and serve!