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Food & Travel |Baked Ziti, and Cheese Glorious Cheese

You know what it’s like—you have a standard recipe and stick to it because it works well. That’s how it started with the baked ziti you see below. It’s been a stand-by recipe for years. I could literally make it with my eyes closed or rattle off the recipe to my husband while bathing the baby. Sure, now and then, I’ve changed out some components based on what is on hand, but the cheese—the cheese is a mainstay—it makes the dish.

Baked Ziti | Bakers Royale

How is it that a simple ho-hum dish can quickly be transformed into a worthy plate scraper with just a block of good quality cheese and a few turns of the wrist over a grater? It’s a question I often flip around in my head. Like many of you, I’ve always been curious about how many of my favorite ingredients are produced.

So when the team behind a new video series called Acres and Avenues reached out to see if I’d be interested in getting my own “acres” experience, I jumped on it. Especially since words like farm to table, sustainability and farmsteading are so frequently tossed around, I wanted to see what they really mean first-hand.

Of course being able to see the impact of how farm-to-table practices directly affects my food and never having been to a dairy farm, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  I headed to Fiscalini Farms up in Modesto, California with my notebook and camera in tow.

Baked Ziti via Bakers Royale

I came back with more than I expected in many ways. To start, their artisan cheese inspired me to rework my classic baked Ziti recipe, by swapping out out all of the Italian-like cheese for some alternatives I picked up when I was at the farm, including San Joaquin Gold, Bandage Wrapped Cheddar and Swiss style Lionza cheese. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s back track.

Dairy Cows | Bakers Royale

Are you ready? Because if you are geek for information that makes all our lives better, get excited!

Let’s start with Brian, who heads up Fiscalini Farms. He’s a fourth generation dairy farmer who knows that great cheese starts with taking great care of the cows.

Dairy Cow | Bakers Royale

It’s a symbiotic relationship that starts with not over-capacitating the farm. The 40-45 employees easily handle and care the approximate 1500 cows each day.  Now . . .psst,  here’s where the city naiveté rears its head. How do you possibly milk all those cows? Well of course there’s a system-a partially automated system and by that I mean there’s a milking parlor-see below and then each utter is hand-cleaned by a farm hand. Yep, hand-cleaned-a human touch in this day of machinery. It was nice to see.

Milking Parlour

Aside from taking great care of their cows, Brian and his family work hard to recycle as many resources as possible—sustainable practices are a must. Shortcut sustainability and the spread between quality and cost are passed on to you and me—simply stated it’s the gap that ultimately determines what ends up on our table. So to keep their production cost down and development resources growing, Brian, like some other dairy farmers, installed a methane digester. A what? Exactly what I said. In its most simple form a methane digester converts the organic matter in manure to produce energy.

The methane digester now runs the farm’s power. And not only do they power their own business, but also other businesses are now utilizing their facility to recycle and produce energy for off-farm use. How many businesses can you name that will recycle and redistribute energy this efficiently?

Bandaged Cheese

Along with that, for every one gallon of water used it is recycled four times for other uses. I loved hearing this, it’s not that I’m easily impressed, it’s more that I’ve never given any thought to how far the term sustainable actually goes when you dig beyond the topical subject of the farm-to-table movement.

It’s practices like this that keep the dairy industry on the cutting edge of sustainable trends. And it’s also what allows farmers like Brian to continue producing affordable and award winning artisanal cheese.

Cheddar Wheels

After my deep-dive into the practices of farmstead cheese making and some behind the scenes look at the sustainable behavior of a dairy farm, I immediately started to rethink my behavior and how I can contribute—because seriously, no one likes a taker! That said, I’ve enlisted my son in on the act and we are starting with the little things like: sorting trash better, reducing our water bottle consumption and lessening our shower time. All things that will lighten our carbon footprint and increase our awareness for sustainable living beyond just the farm-to-table movement.

See how one little visit to learn about the sustainable practice of cheese making leads to seeds of awareness that sprouts in so many directions.

On a lighter note, I know not all of you can or have time to visit a local farm, so here is a fun web series that Dairy Good produced in which it pairs a farmer with an urbanite who then switch lives for a few days. You are going to love these—lots of great moments that will make you laugh and appreciate how stepping out from a familiar surroundings can really make you appreciate and celebrate the small things in life and see other things you never even thought of.

*This is a sponsored post in collaboration with the DairyGood. All opinions are my own.

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Baked Ziti

Yield: Serves 8-10

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, chopped
  • 1 pound Italian hot sausages, casings removed
  • 1 ½ cups chopped onions (about 1 large onion)
  • 3/4 cup chopped carrots, (about 2 carrots)
  • 6 large fresh thyme sprigs
  • 5 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
  • 2 cups dry red wine
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice (do not drain)
  • 1 1/4 pounds ziti pasta, cooked
  • 4 oz. aged Fontina or Gouda cheese, shredded, about 1 cup
  • 4 oz. Gruyere cheese, shredded, about 1 cup
  • Cheddar cheese, shredded, about 1 cup

Directions:

In a large heavy bottom pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook until brown and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove pancetta with a slotted spoon; set aside. Add sausage, cook until no longer pink, breaking it up while cooking. Add onions, carrots, thyme, garlic, bay leaves and crushed red pepper, stir to combine.  Reduce heat to medium and cook until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add wine, bring to a boil, while scraping bottom of pan to pull up browned bits. Return pancetta to pan and add tomatoes with juice, stir to combine. Combine pasta and sauce. Fold in cheeses. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat oven to 400°F. Lightly cover 9x13 baking dish. Transfer pasta mixture to a prepared baking dish. Sprinkle top with cheddar cheese. Bake until heated through, about 20- minutes.