Food & Drink

Surrendering to flavor with this Easter ziti

Easter at my parents’ house this year was a culinary re-enactment of the Civil War.

Mom is from New Jersey and Dad’s from Pittsburgh. Jersey was also represented in her sister, Aunt Polly, and her brother and my Godfather, Uncle Sammy, and his wife Candy.

My brother was born in Mobile, Alabama, and his wife and daughters are N.C. born and bred. Petey’s from a long line of Tar Heels, and The Kid is 100 percent pure Durham.

But, it was the food which starkly illustrated the North-South divide.

After decades of living in the South, Mom’s Easter spread was as traditional as seersucker and magnolia: ham, turkey, potato salad, baked macaroni and cheese, and all the other Dixie dishes you’d expect.

Then Uncle Sammy and Aunt Candy arrived. Maybe it’s a Jersey thing, but Candy is also a lifelong member of the “OMG, what if there’s not enough food?” club, like my mother. She brought piping hot pans of the kind of grub you’d get at a Yankee Easter spread.

First up was ziti. Ziti is the ham biscuit of the northern states. Whenever there is any occurrence that necessitates the bringing of food — funerals, moving day, new baby — there are pans of ziti. Every well-stocked freezer has a pan or two ready to go in the oven, or out the door.

Although ziti also refers to a pasta shape, the type of noodle in a pan of ziti is cook’s choice. Both my aunt and mother favor rigatoni. But I’ve made it with everything from shells to my fave, cavatappi; a long corkscrew-shaped, ridged tube.

Because I’m no fan of red sauce, I make ziti with pink sauce. But Candy’s dish is made with her own homemade red sauce and was really tasty. I asked for the recipe, and she generously complied.

The second dish was stuffed zucchini. I really liked it, but when I asked for this recipe, my suavity was turned up to 11. I said, “I wasn’t expecting much, but I loved it…uh...I mean...uh…” Luckily, she knows me and doesn’t really expect a whole lotta tact and diplomacy, so she gave me this recipe, as well.

Candy’s last dish was simply very thinly sliced (1/4-inch or so) kielbasa slow-cooked with sauerkraut in a crock pot. It was amazing by itself but would be a revelation heaped onto a warm pretzel bun and slathered with beer mustard.

So the Easter dinner fare may have resembled a food-based dichotomy of the novel “North and South,” but once we sat down to eat, it quickly transformed into an equal opportunity Appomattox.

Because at that point, we all surrendered — to flavor.

Thanks for your time.

Debbie Matthews lives, writes, and cooks in Durham. Contact her at

Easter ziti

2-28 ounce cans of tomato puree

2-28 ounce cans tomato sauce

2-28 ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained and run through food processor

1 teaspoon each dried oregano and dried thyme

1 tablespoon dehydrated garlic

5 links sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Salt and pepper

24 ounces tubed pasta, uncooked

Cook pasta in heavily salted water 2-3 minutes less than directions state (you want the noodles very, very al dente, so it will hold up to baking without turning to mush).

Place sausage meat in large heavy pot and brown. Stir in all tomato products. Add spices and garlic. Bring to boil and let simmer until tightened up (about 20 minutes). Season, taste, and re-season if needed.

Stir cooked pasta into sauce, then pour everything into a very large casserole dish. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for twenty minutes. Uncover and top with mozzarella cheese. Bake 40 minutes more or until browned and bubbly.

Let sit at room temp for 10-15 minutes before service. Serves 10-12.

Stuffed zucchini

Preheat oven to 350. Slice 7 or 8 zucchini length-wise. Using a spoon, scoop out seeds and pulp, and place scrapings into skillet along with ½ diced yellow onion and a spoonful of dehydrated garlic.

Cook in a little butter until the liquid is mostly cooked out and veggies are golden-brown. Stir in enough Italian-style breadcrumbs to stiffen the stuffing. Spoon stuffing into zucchini. Bake uncovered about 45 minutes, until the zucchini is tender, and the stuffing has browned. Serves 10-12.