B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Note from the author-

I want to apologize for going so long without a post. It’s been a crazy summer. We drove cross-country. We’re selling our house. I’m growing out my pixie cut. It’s been madness. None of this has stopped me from helping the homeless community but it has kept me from sitting down to write about it.

In addition to my personal struggles, Las Vegas has been suffering from near record breaking heat.

In a three day time span, seven people died from heat exposure. The limited amount of time that I usually dedicate to this blog has been spent seeking contributions of water, ice and sports drinks for our homeless community and distributing them during and separate from our weekly G Street distribution. It’s bad out there, folks. Do what you can to help.

On to the main event…

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I grew up one of eight kids.  Being the youngest, I was the last to go to school and when I started, I had half-day kindergarten in the afternoons.  Every morning, after my siblings dispersed, the house got quiet and I had my Mom to myself for a few brief hours.  Some of my fondest, early memories are of those mornings.

My parents were born during the Great Depression in Iowa, where recovery was slow.  They were raised to believe that waste was unacceptable and having eight kids to raise in a single-income home only solidified that belief.

My Mom often salvaged bruised produce from our local supermarket to make jam.  She was always mending things instead of throwing them out and we wore hand-me downs so frequently that my sisters and I still argue over who each item  “belonged” to.  I was raised with the “mend it or make do” philosophy and to this day, I try to follow it.

With that many kids in the house, food didn’t last long enough to go bad. On those rare occasions that bananas over-ripened my Mom and I would make banana bread before she walked me to school.  At such a young age, seeing my Mom make a delicacy out of slimy, bruised bananas was magical.

The best part was that I got the first piece.  I had five, ravenous brothers and they swarmed food like angry bees.  I never got the first piece of anything.  The sheer power was intoxicating.

Between the nostalgia and the early lessons in food conservation, banana bread has always held a special place in my heart.  Fast-forward thirty years and I’m the mother, making banana bread with my small children.  If I’m lucky they will harbor the same happy memories that I do.

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Making memories with my oldest, when he wasn’t as old.

My mom didn’t have a sacred, heirloom recipe.  She used the recipe on the back of the flour bag, so that’s where I started, too.

Luckily for all of us, my kids are very inconsistent with their banana eating habits so I’ve had a lot of ingredients to practice with.

Over the years, I have perfected my recipe, cutting back on some ingredients and cutting out others entirely.  Replacing white flour with whole wheat flour is easy in because it doesn’t change the color.  I whip my bananas into an even consistency because I’m not a fan of hunks of mushy banana.  The change from bread into muffins was tricky but portioning and slicing bread on a folding table in the dark did not seem practical.

Pro-tip, don’t bring a knife with you for slicing or anything else, ever.

My new, improved and fully spectacular Emergency Banana Muffin recipe is something that I’m very proud of.  Enjoy.

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Banana muffin goodness.

Emergency Banana Bread Muffins

2 ¼ C over-ripened bananas
2 C Whole Wheat Flour
1 C brown sugar
½ C softened butter
2 beaten eggs
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin tins with non-stick spray, inside cups and on top of pan.

Mash bananas and whip thoroughly with a whisk until the texture is uniform and there are no lumps. Set aside.

Using a mixer, cream together butter and brown sugar. Add beaten eggs and mashed bananas and mix thoroughly.

Add flour, baking soda and salt and mix, just to moisten batter.

Pour into muffin tin, until cups are nearly full. Bake for 14-16 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Makes 12-15 muffins.

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Notice the portions devoured by my offspring.

 

It’s A Dry Heat.

If you ever want to test the patience of someone from the southwest United States, there is an easy, universally despised way. Just slip the phrase, “it’s a dry heat,” into conversation. Ovens are a dry heat and saunas are a humid heat. Which would you prefer to spend time in?

According to the 2017 Homeless Death Report, compiled by the Clark County coroner, one-hundred and eighty-nine people that were identified as homeless, died in 2017. Out of that total, sixty-two of those people died due to heat-exposure.

Reread that. Let it sink in. Sixty-two homeless people died because of heat-exposure, last year. Approximately one-third of the amount of homeless deaths that were experienced in Las Vegas last year, were the result of the weather. In a city that doesn’t experience much in the way of natural disasters, it doesn’t seem like the weather should be able to kill us but here we are, held hostage by the sun.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as of 2016, Nevada has the highest death toll of any U.S. state for heat-related deaths for four years running and we’ve seen a spike in deaths since then.

In an effort to more deeply understand the plight of my friends living on the street, I participated in a unity fast last week. For one day, I fasted per the Ramadan rules. Those rules are much stricter than the Catholic fasting and abstinence rules that I’m used to. I can easily afford to skip a few meals but spending a summer day in Las Vegas without water was no picnic. I had to lie down during my kids’ nap and by the time the sun went down at 8:00pm, I felt lethargic and dizzy. The next day I had a dehydration headache no matter how much water I consumed and believe me, I drank a lot of water the next several days.

Still, it was a blessing.

I got to take a tiny peek at the symptoms that people who suffer from dehydration experience. I spent my whole day in the air conditioning. I didn’t have severe sunburns, which are common among the homeless during the summer. I didn’t have heat exhaustion from relentless exposure to triple digit temperatures and I only went about a day without food and thirteen hours without fluids.

The city has cooling stations that are opened during the summer months and additional locations that open during extreme heat advisories.  I print the information off the city website and pass it out to everyone I see that is without shelter from the heat.  Sadly, there aren’t enough cooling stations to hold all the homeless in Las Vegas and those that are living on the street aren’t always capable of traveling to them.

Many of our volunteers aren’t able to come to G Street to serve in extreme heat and others travel for vacation so every able bodied volunteer is more important during the summer months. It’s by far the most difficult time of the year to meet the needs of those that rely on us.  Luckily, those that aren’t able to serve can contribute in other ways. Last year, a friend of mine donated a big, pull-along cooler that I dubbed “the Hydration Station.” Isn’t it beautiful?

Cooler
It holds forty-eight bottles of water and sixty bottles of gatorade, with room for ice.

 

If a few hours without water made me “hangry,” imagine how pleased someone who spends 24/7 in the heat is when they get a cold bottle of gatorade and a smile.

In addition to keeping people hydrated, during these brutal months, I try to provide alternatives to hot food. I will be sharing cold food recipes with your over the summer months.

This week, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are on the menu and that gives me a chance to share with you my Nectarine Jam recipe.

Nectarine tree
This recipe is best when nectarines are in season.  I pick mine from a neighbor’s tree.

Nectarine Jam

4 lbs of ripe whole nectarines
5 C sugar
1 large lemon

Put a small, dry plate in the freezer.

Chop the nectarines, removing the pits but leaving the skins on. The skins are full of pectin and add a pleasant color and texture to the jam.

Measure five cups of sugar into a bowl. Set aside.

Put the nectarines in a stock pot. You should use a pot that is 10 quarts or larger because this jam will bubble up while cooking. Zest the lemon with a small grater, directly into the pot before cutting the lemon in two and squeezing in the juice.

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Put your pot on the stove over medium heat. Slowly pour in sugar, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Boil for ten minutes, stirring to prevent the jam from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

As the jam boils, it will produce foam.  Most of it will go away, as it boils. Whatever is left, you can scrape off with a metal spoon and throw away. The foam doesn’t taste good and it spoils the flavor of the jam, if it’s left there.

Using a potato masher, break up the remaining chunks of nectarine. Stir and return to a boil for one minute.

To test consistency, put a small dollop on the cold plate that you placed in the freezer earlier. If it’s too runny, let it cook a little longer and try again. If you like the consistency, it’s done.

Pour the jam into a container of your choice, then use a butter knife to scrape the inside of the container, to release the air bubbles. If you want to freeze your jam for use later, make sure it’s in a freezable container. Otherwise, put the jam in the refrigerator to cool before using it.

It’s great in PB & J sandwiches but also great with ice cream, on biscuits or sweet breads.

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Freezer friendly jars exist now.  What a time to be alive.

A Child Just Like Mine

While I was setting up my table Monday night, a boy, smiling so hard that I could count how many baby teeth he was missing, approached me.  He could hardly contain himself.  “Are you Corey’s Mom?”

“I am,” I told him.  “Do you go to his school?”

He nodded gleefully.  “I’m in his class!”  He told me his name and it immediately rang a bell.  According to the growth chart on the wall in their classroom, he is the only kid shorter than mine, by about a 1/3 of an inch.  It’s something that a life long shorty commits to memory.

I smiled and chatted with the little guy until the line started moving and he ran back to his Mom.  I held my breath for a moment, wondering what side of the table his Mom was on.  To my dismay, they were in line to eat not to serve.

I know better than to be surprised by this.

“Food insecure” is the term used to describe the 297,000 people in the Greater Las Vegas Area that don’t get enough food to eat.  Forty percent of those people are children, just like my son’s friend.  The rest may be elderly people on a fixed income, they may be disabled and a large portion are the working-poor.    

Many of the food insecure lead outwardly normal lives. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is no zip code in the valley that is free from hunger.  In the most affluent neighborhoods in the greater Las Vegas area there are still people going without food.   My neighborhood is pretty squarely middle class, so of course there are people in need, close to home.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Las Vegas has the biggest shortage of affordable, available homes for rent, out of any metropolitan area in the United States.  For every one hundred households that are deemed “extremely low-income” there are only twelve affordable, rental units available. The national average is thirty-five units available per one hundred households.  To be considered extremely low income, a household’s annual income must fall below thirty-percent of the area median income. In Clark County that means a family of four earning less than $24,300. A person earning the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, working full-time, would only earn $17,160.00.  In order to pay for a modest, one bedroom apartment in Las Vegas, a minimum wage worker would have to put in seventy hours a week.

For the hundreds of people we feed every Monday night, and the thousands served by people like us, getting themselves and  their loved ones a hot meal from a friendly face is a big relief.  Having someone recognize you and smile, is an uncommon comfort and it is the very least that we can do.

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Corey and I serving on Christmas.

My son being on one side of the table and his friend being on the other is just an example of privilege.  They go to the same school, which means that they live in the same neighborhood.  They’re the same age, the same grade and my son isn’t somehow outperforming his classmate.  He didn’t do anything to earn his dinner at home that night.  Truth be told, I wish that Corey was with me when his classmate arrived because he may have learned something about his privilege.  He needs to know about it. He needs to know that when you are born with undeserved advantages, you have an obligation to those born without those privileges.

I was able to provide this kid with a little familiarity and sneak him a few extra granola bars.

He provided me with a reminder that food insecurity is never more than a few feet away.  Hunger affects kids just like mine and families much like mine.

Veggie Scrap Broth

This recipe is a staple in my kitchen.  I use it in nearly all of my vegetarian recipes to add flavor and calories but it can be used as a substitute for broth in any recipe.

I prefer making broth in a slow cooker because it doesn’t require much attention.  I use a 4 quart slow cooker which makes about 2 quarts of broth.  This homemade broth only lasts about three days in the fridge so I cook it in small batches to avoid waste.

Start saving veggie scraps now. Avoid adding eggplant skins, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes and potato skins and corn husks to your medley.  Pepper seeds will make the broth a little spicy but that isn’t a bad thing in my opinion.

Good scraps to use are celery ends, broccoli stems, carrots tops and peels, green onions, garlic skins, mushroom stems, dried-out herbs, leafy green stalks, bell peppers or most vegetables that you have on hand. Include at least three kinds of vegetables in each batch of broth so you don’t end up with broth that only tastes like celery.  You can use whole vegetables as well but cut them up or puncture them so they don’t float.

A lot of the color in these broths comes from onion skins and leafy greens, so don’t be skimpy with those.

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Vegetable Scrap Broth

1 G freezer bag of Fresh or frozen vegetable scraps
3 whole bay leaves
1.5 t minced garlic
2 medium brown or yellow onion
1 C mushrooms
2 T apple cider vinegar

 

Leaving skins on, coarsely chop onions and add to slow-cooker.  Add garlic, bay leaves and apple cider vinegar. Cover with water, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Let this cook for 12 hours on low heat, stirring regularly.

Pour contents of the slow cooker the through a fine, mesh sieve over a large bowl. Make sure that nothing solid made it through and pour into the container of your choice.

Add to any dish that you would normally use broth in and enjoy.

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The O.G. (Original Giver)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Father John McShane early in my blog.  He is the Original Giver of G Street and an  inspiration to everyone there.

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Father McShane is a long-time friend of my family.  I met him in 2002 when I first moved to Las Vegas but I hadn’t seen him in years.  I was a teenager then, so I didn’t really have a chance to build a friendship with him until I started volunteering with the homeless.

Father McShane is seventy-five years old and never wears a coat. He must be heated by the light of Christ because no matter how cold, windy or rainy it is, the man is always wearing short sleeves. The rumor is that Father McShane gives his coats away. I believe it.

He has spent most of his career in Nevada, from Reno to Las Vegas and many rural communities in between. He spent five years as the Chaplain at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and while there, he founded the Southern Nevada Chapter of the St. Benedict Labre Homeless Ministry.  It started with PB & J sandwiches from the trunk of his car but now, almost two decades later, there are dozens of free-lance volunteers feeding, clothing and caring for hundreds of people.

In 2004, Father McShane was sent back to rural Nevada, and eventually found a home in Ely, (that’s pronounced E-Lee not E-Lye) at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Ely is four hours north of Las Vegas, so everyone was surprised when Father maintained his outreach ministry in Las Vegas. To this day, Father McShane drives eight hours to the Westside of Las Vegas to attend the weekly event and back, every week. His parish in Ely is incredibly supportive and send socks, underwear, gift cards, bus passes and other helpful items to the indigent.

Nearly every Monday for the past eighteen years, he has come to G Street in an effort to lessen the burden of homelessness and to make their lives more bearable.

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Once a month he gives Mass at the original McWilliams townsite, at the intersections of McWilliams Ave and G Street.

My first night on G Street while a fellow volunteer was telling me how they came to serve, I spotted an old priest out of the corner of my eye. “Is that… is that Father McShane?” They knew him as Father John, so I excused myself and approached him for a closer look.  I was still several feet away when I caught his eye and he paused. “Hey! You’re a Murphy!”  He asked me how my sisters and parents were. We chatted as he passed out socks to the dozens of people that had surrounded him. I felt an instant connection to G Street through Father McShane, as so many before and since have.

Father McShane has an entourage. Since his parish, as well as other groups collect for the St. Benedict Labre Ministry, he often has high use items that aren’t commonly handed out. He is swarmed from the moment that he steps out of his car. He gives everyone what he has and makes a list of what everyone is asking for.  People ask him to bless them, they ask for his prayers and they eagerly update him on their situations.

Week after week, those in need flock to him. They surround him with their hands out but he never loses patience or hope. He never judges people or tries to determine who is most worthy of what he has. He gives, blesses, prays and listens.

Every Monday for nearly twenty years.

His patience and generosity are contagious. I leave conversations with him feeling lighter.  My voice and my heart are softer after speaking with him.

He isn’t the only one on G Street that has found peace by serving others. Many people have followed in the father’s footsteps and Las Vegas is a better place because of it.  I truly believe that he’ll be canonized one day.

It is in honor of Father John McShane that I came up with this recipe.  It can be served as a side dish or as main dish, in a cup or bowl.

 

Holy Mole

Slow Cooker Black Beans

3 C dried black beans

4 C broth

Coat the inside of your crockpot with pan spray.  Pour in beans and broth.  Cover beans with water.  Cook on high for six hours, adding water, as necessary to keep beans covered with liquid.  I use chicken-bone broth for flavor but if you want to make this a vegetarian recipe you can substitute vegetable or mushroom broth.

Drain beans.

Brown Rice

3 C brown rice

6 C water

Pour water into a medium sized pot and bring to a boil.  Add rice and return to boil.  Cover and keep on a low simmer for twenty minutes, stirring frequently.

Sauce

1 T cooking oil

1 C onion, minced

1 28 oz can tomatoes, puréed

3 T unsweetened, powdered cocoa

1 t chipotle chile powder

2 t salt

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium flame.  Add onion and cook until translucent, about five minutes.  Pour puréed tomatoes into pan.  Add cocoa, chili powder and salt, mix well.  Bring sauce to a boil and let simmer for three minutes, stirring constantly.

Combine rice, beans and sauce.  Mix thoroughly.  Serve warm.

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Holy Mole- mole sauce over brown rice and black beans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Life Gives You Crackers…

Many people and a handful of organizations have provided me with food to serve to the hungry on G Street, over the years.  Most recently, the Las Vegas chapter of Food Not Bombs gave me a car load of crackers, cereal and cookies to hand out.

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A carload of crackers.

Most of these foods were a few days past their best-by date, so they wouldn’t be sold in stores. Although they pose no health risk to the consumer and hadn’t even had a chance to get stale yet, stores dispose of this food instead of selling it to the public.  

Other reasons that stores might not sell food are damaged packaging, discontinuation of a product, overstock of an item, or cosmetic imperfections.  Imperfect produce can be anything from a bruised apple to a banana that is deemed too yellow. I made an entire batch of banana bread muffins with “too yellow” bananas and I have to say, they were amazing.  

Many stores and restaurants chose to donate nonsalable food and write the donation off on their taxes.  That store would contact a 501-3C, a registered charitable organization, of their choosing. This process is called Food Rescue.

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Food rescue selfie with Food Not Bombs.

Someone like the dedicated folks at Food Not Bombs pull up to a loading dock, fill their vehicle with random food items and haul them off.  When there is an abundance of food and not enough hands, if the amount of food exceeds the need that the groups meets or the storage space that they have available is limited, they reach out to people like me to help with distribution.  

Food Rescue is a winning situation for everyone involved.  Businesses have a chance to write off the donation, recovering some of their expenses.  Groups and people that help to distribute food to the hungry, have to buy less out of pocket.  The needs of more people in the community are met.

Beyond that, food rescue helps to eliminate unnecessary waste.  Americans throw away about six-billion pounds of food every month.  No one should go hungry in a country that can afford to throw away that much food.  

Food waste is also a big cause of greenhouse gas production.  When all that food waste goes into a landfill, where it is covered with more waste and deprived of oxygen, it produces methane.  Landfills are the third largest source of methane gases, according to the EPA. By working together, as a community, we can eliminate food from going into a landfill and keep our air and planet healthier.

Everyone benefits from food rescue.  

For my part in this process, I drove down to the Huntridge neighborhood and helped to load my car with hundreds of boxes of snacks.  I had to store them at my house for a few days. While I unloaded the food from my car, I took inventory.

I knew that the cookies and cereal boxes would go faster than we could stock them on our table.  Most of the crackers, flavored Wheat Thins and Triscuits would go too but there were also a few dozen boxes of plain, salted crackers.  Like most people, I love Saltines in my soup or chili and they are my go-to, when my stomach is unsettled. Also, like most people, i can’t imagine sitting down and snacking on a box of them.  

There is one other factor that I always consider when I’m making food.  Will they be able to taste the love?  Call me crazy but a box of dry, salted crackers is not what I think of when I think  of lovin’ from the oven.

I looked through my cookbooks, recipe collections and eventually the internet void to find something that incorporated Saltines and showed whoever ate it that I cared to put forth the effort.  I found a few recipes that were close but nothing quite right. Luckily, I have a lot of volunteer taste testers and after a few tries I came up with something that I’m proud of.

Introducing-
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Chocolate Toffee Bars

50 Saltine Crackers

1 C Butter

1 ½ C brown sugar, packed

3 C chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cover a large cookie sheet with tin foil and spray thoroughly with pan spray.  Set down a single layer of crackers.

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Ya’ basic, crackers. Ya’ basic.

 In a small saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar.  Bring to a full boil and allow to boil hard for three minutes, while stirring constantly.  Pour mixture over crackers. Using a wooden spoon, spread mixture evenly over crackers.

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So gooey and sweet.

 

Bake for five minutes.  Top with chocolate chips.  Bake for three minutes. Spread melted chocolate over crackers, evenly.  Place flat in the freezer for at least thirty minutes.

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Right before they go into the freezer.

You can use a very sharp knife or pizza cutter to cut these into orderly pieces or you can use your hands to break them into jagged pieces.  

Keep these cold until they are ready to serve or anticipate chocolate covered fingers.

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He went through the entire line two extra times just for more toffee. The strongest endorsement possible. 

 

 

 

The Pasta Problem

If you have ever cooked for a large group before, be it a party, a church group, or a giant, lower-middle class family, you already know that when you have to feed a lot of people with a little money, pasta is the answer.  The problem with pasta is that everyone else knows that, too.

I cannot count how many times I have heard someone in the chow line ask a volunteer to put  “your spaghetti” on top of all the other spaghetti. Spaghetti is great, macaroni and cheese is great, buttered noodles are great.  A dinner of pasta with no meat or vegetables is not so great.

Noodles and sauce are cheap, so there is always a lot.  If this is all that you can bring, bring it. Something is always better than nothing. If you can, meatballs, chicken, broccoli, mushrooms or spinach will go a long way.

Here is my formula for pasta-

Pound of Noodles + Pound of Meat + ½ Pound of veggies

When I make baked ziti for example, I use two pounds of noodles, two pounds of meat and one pound of spinach.  You can catch that recipe below.

 

Baked Ziti Primavera

2 lbs dry ziti or any tubular pasta
2 lbs ground Italian sausage
1 lb spinach leaves
4- 24 oz marinara sauce
1 lb sliced provolone
3 C sour cream
16 oz mozzarella
4 TBSP Parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Fill a medium-sized pot with water and bring it to a boil.  Add your noodles and let water return to a boil.  Boil for about 8 minutes or until your pasta is al dente. Remove from heat and drain.

Brown the ground sausage in a large pot.  While the meat cooks, trim the stems off of the spinach. Run the spinach leaves through a food processor until thoroughly diced.  Add to the meat and mix well.  Add marinara sauce to the beef mixture and let it simmer for 15 minutes.

I use a “heavy-duty,” aluminum roasting pan for this dish. It is 16 inches by 11 inches and 2.5 inches deep. Do not use a dish that is less than 2.5 inches deep.

Fill the empty tray with half of the noodles. Layer half the provolone on top and sprinkle with half the parmesan, about 2 TBSPs. Spread the sour cream evenly. Spread the meat mixture over the sour cream. Add the remaining noodles, the rest of the meat-mixture and the remaining provolone. Cover with mozzarella. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan.

Cover the dish with tin foil and bake in the oven for forty minutes.  If you want the cheese on top of the ziti to get brown and bubbly, remove the tin foil and bake for another five minutes.  Since everything is precooked in this dish, you just want the tray heated through and the cheese melted.

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You can’t argue with results.