This is a great springtime pasta bake. Even in the lighter, warmer months of the year, I am always looking for my kitchen to be a source of comfort food. I love this dish for filling that important place. You just pull the pasta out of the oven and place in the center of the table. It's got springtime vibes galore but also feels so homey and familiar.
Technique tip: If your asparagus are medium and thick, peel and halve lengthwise before cutting and cooking.
Swap option: You can substitute any quick-cooking spring vegetables in place of the asparagus and zucchini. Example: Snow pea, snap peas, green beans. You can also sub in rigatoni, penne or shells for the pasta shape.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion, celery and garlic, and season with salt and the red pepper flakes. Cook until the onions become translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sugar and 1 cup water, and cook for an additional 15-18 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time. Add 2 more tablespoons of the olive oil and blend the sauce in the blender until smooth. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a large bowl.2.
In a large pot, bring the water to a rolling boil. Add the salt and bring the water back to a boil. Taste the water (it should be salty like seawater). Add the ziti and stir with a large, slotted spoon to ensure the pasta does not stick as it cooks. Cook until still quite firm, 8-10 minutes. Drain and drop into the bowl with sauce. Stir to blend.3.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.4.
In a medium skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the asparagus and zucchini with a pinch of salt and cook until tender, 2-3 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the sauce.5.
Add the ziti to the sauce and stir gently to blend. Stir in the basil. Taste for seasoning. Fill a baking dish with all of the pasta mix, sprinkling half of the mozzarella and Parmesan into the pasta as you fill the dish. Top with all of the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.6.
Place the dish in the center of the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the top browns. Run the dish under the broiler 2-3 minutes for an extra bubbly, browned top.