Not my typical dish! This is the kind of stuff that I love to pick up at a good deli, expecting that it will be executed well. And it usually is. But I had a nice eggplant just sitting on the counter, daring me to cook it. Why, you may ask, was it there to begin with? That’s what usually happens in my kitchen. I wander through the store, and something will catch my eye. It promptly goes into the basket without the benefit of that crucial next step in any logical progression: what the hell am I going to cook with that thing?
So I poked around our cook book collection until Batali’s Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Homefell onto my head. I don’t normally associate this kind of simple dish with Batali, but he can be deceptive. I found a baked ziti recipe that required a large, messy production to cook the eggplant. I am nothing if not lazy, so I tossed that step out. And I didn’t have the correct cheese, so that followed the eggplant step. And I didn’t have ziti, and I didn’t feel like using what seemed like a huge amount of bread crumbs. But really, all of that stuff is just details. The general idea is pretty simple. a few layers of tomato sauce, pasta, eggplant and cheese. Stick it in the oven for a while and you are done.
I made a fresh tomato sauce because there are few things easier, and nothing that gives more bang for your five minutes of prep required. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but if you have ever entertained the thought of using canned or bottled sauce on something that will be consumed by human beings, please reconsider. It’s just too damned easy to make a great, fresh tomato sauce. If you are feeding children, all bets are off, because they don’t become human until they leave home, so by all means use jarred crap on them.
Baked Penne With Eggplant
1 large eggplant partially peeled and cut into 3/4 inch dice
2 ½ cups of fresh tomato sauce (there are 8000 recipes for this)
1 pound dried penne
½ cup grating cheese of your choice (I used Parmigiano-Reggiano,
but Pecorino-Romano would be great)
½ pound of Mozzarella or Ricotta Salata.
½ cup Panko Bread Crumbs
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Preheat oven to 375°
Cook the penne in ample salted water, removing it about three minutes before it is done. Drain it and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and toss with 1 cup of the (homemade, or don’t bother) tomato sauce.
In a large sauté pan heat a few tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the eggplant cubes and toss to coat with the oil. Add more oil if the eggplant doesn’t look like it is completely coated. In case you don’t know, eggplants are oil sponges. It’s amazing! Cook the eggplant until the cubes are browned, tossing occasionally to cook evenly.
Oil a 9″x12″ baking dish and cover the bottom with some of the tomato sauce. Just a thin layer, perhaps ¼ to ½ cup. Sprinkle half of the Panko over the sauce.
Add half of the pasta to the dish, spreading it evenly.
Add half of the eggplant on top of the pasta,
Pour another ¼ to ½ cup of sauce over the eggplant, spreading it evenly.
Sprinkle half of the cheese over the sauce.
Add the rest of the pasta.
Add the rest of the eggplant.
pour the remaining sauce over the eggplant, remembering to spread it evenly.
Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the sauce, and then the rest of the Panko.
Drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil over everything, and then bake it for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and place thinly sliced Mozarrella over the top. Return to the oven and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it rest for a few minutes before serving. If the Mozarrella isn’t nicely melted and browned, stick it under the broiler for a few minutes before you serve it. If you want something a bit different, don’t use the Mozarrella, and instead bake it for 45 minutes, and grate Ricotta Salata over the dish when you take it out of the oven.