I am posting this recipe at the request of Theresa Russo from Verona NJ. I make 2 different versions of this Sicilian inspired classic depending on my mood, a baked and a stove top version. Today’s recipe is the baked . In my opinion there are 2 keys to the execution of this simple dish:
1. Finding quality Eggplant.- I used Italian Eggplant, which is smaller than conventional Eggplant and has less seeds. Look for shiny unblemished skins and a firm fruit.
2. Making a Fresh Uncooked Sauce- Note I do not believe in cooking tomato sauce a long time and I certainly do not believe in cooking it twice, which is what you will be doing if you elect to use a cooked sauce. Don’t get me wrong the dish will still be pretty darn good, but you will be cooking the freshness out of the tomato causing the tomato to lose it’s bright acidic flavor. Use a cooked sauce to garnish at the end, this way you will have a fresh and concentrated tomato flavor working for you at the same time. I am assuming that if you have read my blog and looked at my previous recipe you are a fairly serious home cook, which would mean that you have your own Tomato Sauce recipe. That is good….because you are not getting mine. At least for today.
Also, an additional word about Eggplant, before I move onto the recipe. Eggplant has the tendency to soak up oil like a sponge. If you wish or if you plan the meal far in advance (which I almost never do) you can salt it and press it “Grandma style” to collapse the cell structure of the fruit. A faster method is to Roast the Eggplant whole at about 400 degrees from anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the fruit. The flash roasting method will still keep the Eggplant firm enough to slice but condense the cell structure sufficiently enough where you will not take on an excessive amounts of liquid or lipids. If you happen to roast it too long, well… you will have babaganoush, which is still pretty good. Note that I did not press or pre-roast the eggplant for my recipe, because I actually like it when the eggplant releases the infused oil and other flavors when it breaks down. I also like the custard like texture in the center, providing that the oil use is not too excessive. There is also a myth circulating that by pre-salting you can extract the bitterness from the fruit. This is false. If you happen to encounter bitter Eggplant this is because the fruit that you selected was too mature. Salt will only extract the water from the fruit and help break down the cell structure. The phenolic compounds that cause the bitterness will still remain. Well, enough on eggplant science and onto the recipe.
3 to 4 small Italiant Eggplant sliced into 1/4″ thick rounds
One 28 oz Can San Marzano Tomatoes or other High Quality Imported Whole Peeled Italian Tomatoes
1 lb Dried Penne Pasta (High Quality. None of that Ronzoni)
1 recipe Garlic Basil infused Oil (see recipe below)
1/2 Cup grated Pecorino Romano
1 fresh or a mixture of fresh or dry aged whole milk mozzarella cubed
12 basil leaves plus extra for garnish
1 recipe Toasted Bread Crumbs (recipe to follow)
Homemade Tomato Sauce for garnish.
Prepare the uncooked sauce: Open the tomatoes and discard the basil leaf and crush lightly by hand to remove any peels or green cores that you may find. Pour the tomatoes in blender with about an 1/8 of a cup of the infused oil, and salt an pulse lightly until fairly smooth. adjust for seasoning, adding a pinch of sugar (only if necessary, taste first don’t just add!). Set aside the sauce until you are ready to assemble the dish.
Grease an oven proof baking dish lightly set aside and pre-heat your oven to 425 f
Set a pot over a flame and bring 6 quarts of water to boil
Set a saute pan or 2 over medium heat with Infused Oil. Season the Eggplant with salt and pepper and add Eggplant and Garlic in batches to fry until lightly browned and mottled in spots.
Set aside and blot dry on paper towels discarding the garlic
Salt the pasta water until it tastes like the sea and drop your Penne and Cook about half the cooking time listed on your package instructions (It will cook the rest of the way in the oven)
Drain the pasta and toss it with a small amount of reserved uncooked sauce.
Lay down a thin layer of uncooked sauce at the bottom of the dish, resisting the urge to go heavy.
Add one complete layer of Eggplant rounds over the top of the sauce.
Add a generous layer of Toasted Bread Crumb over the eggplant.
Lay down a layer of Penne .
Add mozzarella cubes.
A generous dusting of Pecorino Romano.
Add Basil leaves and Press down gently.
Dot with more tomato sauce.
Layer Eggplant, Bread Crumb, Penne,Mozzarella, Pecorino, more Basil leaves.
Finish up with Eggplant and a Breadcrumb and Pecorino coating on the top. Dot with some Uncooked Sauce.
Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes or until top is well browned and the Pasta is crispy at the edges.
Add additional fresh Basil leaves.
Let the casserole set for 2o to 30 minutes or until it sets up like a cake. Garnish with Homemade cooked Tomato Sauce and Pecorino Romano.
Toasted Bread Crumb Recipe
3/4 cup Panko Bread Crumbs
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Freshly Grated Pecorino Romano
Basil or Mint leaves cut in Chiffonade.
Heat the Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a saute pan over medium heat.
When a couple of crumbs begin to sizzle add the bread crumb and toast until it is a light golden brown. Adding a small amount of oil if too dry.
Empty pan into a metal bowl.
Toss with the Pecorino and lightly season with salt and mix in the fresh herbs.
Infused Garlic Oil
2 heads of garlic with cloves peeled and trimmed
1 teaspoon of Chili Flake
2 Branches of Basil with stems and leaves attached.
2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Heat oil and garlic cloves over low heat in a small pot add Basil and Chil flake and roast until the Garlic is a light golden brown for about 20 minutes.Remove from the heat and Strain.