Researching the recipe for this post made me think of the popular children’s game of telephone, where participants stand in line and the first person whispers a message to the second, who whispers what he heard to the next person in the line, and so on. The object of the game is to keep the message as close as possible to the original. At the end of the line, the final message is compared to the original and, as you’re probably aware, the differences between the two can be quite dramatic. Indeed, it’s the variation that provides the chief source of enjoyment.
So, today’s recipe, Baked Pasta with Eggplant, Fennel, and Tomatoes, is the latest version of the one passed on to me by Kalpana’s Surrey Farms blog. She attributes the recipe to the Food Network’s Ina Garten but admits to having taken some liberties in adapting it.
Kalpana’s attribution led me to search for the recipe online, where I found a version of it on Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa” website listed as Baked Pasta with Tomatoes and Eggplant. However, I’m not certain that this is the exact version that Kalpana references as the basis for her own.
That Ina’s online recipe, as well as her version of it described by Kalpana, is considerably more involved made me appreciate Kalpana’s steps to simplify it in her adaptation. My chief departure from Kalpana’s, however, was using a home-made, as opposed to a store-bought, marinara sauce, which I prepared using the herbs and seasonings for the soup component of Garten’s recipe.
What I especially liked about Kalpana’s approach to the dish was her choosing to cook and then bake everything in an enameled-cast iron Dutch oven, which eliminated using individual gratin dishes or layering in a baking dish.
This richly flavored baked pasta, oozing with cheese and laden with succulent eggplant and sweet fennel, made the perfect dish for a rainy winter evening. We chose to serve it with a California Barbera, but any full-bodied, dry red would do well with it.
If you enjoy this recipe, I encourage you to check out both Kalpana’s and Ina’s versions as well, and then pass on your own to the next home-chef in line.
Baked Pasta with Eggplant, Fennel, and Tomatoes (adapted from recipes from Surreyfarms.net and BarefootContessa.com)
For the sauce:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 14-ounce cans imported Italian crushed tomatoes; rinse the cans and reserve 1 cup of the rinsing water
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
4 basil leaves, chopped
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the pasta:
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large Italian eggplant (about 1 pound), ½-inch diced
1 large fennel bulb, ½-inch diced
1 onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound penne rigate
8-ounce ball fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, small cubes
1. Preheat oven to 450°F degrees.
2. Place the tomatoes, along with the reserved rinsing water, pepper flakes, oregano, thyme, basil, olive oil, salt and pepper to a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Bring to a simmer, and cook uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes. When finished, set aside.
3. Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed, preferably enameled cast-iron Dutch oven.
4. Add the onions and the fennel and sauté on medium heat, until tender, about 10 minutes.
5. Add the eggplant and 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sauté until tender, about 6 to 7 minutes, adding a little more oil if the eggplant is sticking.
6. Add the garlic, and cook stirring for about 2 minutes or until fragrant. Do not let the garlic burn.
7. Meanwhile, cook the pasta following box directions, until 2 to 3 minutes shy of al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving one or two cups of the pasta water. Set pasta aside.
8. Add the tomato sauce to the vegetables and mix thoroughly. Simmer on low for about 7 minutes.
9. Add the pasta and toss well with the sauce and vegetables. Add one cup of the pasta water and stir. If the mixture appears too thick, add a little more of the pasta water.
10. Add the mozzarella and one cup of the Parmigiano, and fold into the pasta and vegetables, making sure the cheese is evenly distributed.
11. Bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
12. Remove the pot from the oven, sprinkle the remaining ½ cup Parmigiano, and dot with the butter.
13. Return to oven and cook for about another 7 minutes.
14. Serve hot in heated pasta bowls, accompanied by additional cheese for sprinkling.
Wine Pairing: Barbera, Zinfandel