Last night, my son and grandson joined my husband and me for dinner. I made baked ziti with eggplant.
The nicest compliment came when my son said this newest rendition of baked ziti was among the top five meals I had ever made. He said he wished it was served in a restaurant so he could get more whenever he wanted. (No need for that, honey; just say when.) It was all music to my ears. I had been working on a recipe for baked ziti and eggplant for years.
I love roasted eggplant. I was taught by my mother to sweat (salt and drain) eggplant before cooking to rid it of its bitterness. Indeed, for most of my adult life, I equated the brown liquid that dripped from the colander during sweating as the color of bitterness. The more brown liquid in the sink, the more successful I thought I would be in making a delicious eggplant dish. But recently I learned the true reason for sweating had nothing to do with bitterness and everything to do with the anatomy of eggplant. Eggplant is porous; it is full of small air pockets that absorb oil like a sponge. Sweating draws out water from the eggplant’s cells which fill the air pockets so cooking oil can’t’ occupy the air space.
Since I no longer fry eggplant, this summer I eliminated this time-consuming step of sweating and instead lightly brushed each raw slice of eggplant with olive oil before roasting.
The results have been delightful. At a recent dinner party, guests started gobbling down unadorned roasted eggplant slices before I got a chance to smother them with marinara sauce and mozzarella.
Recently, I went to the Richland Farmers Market in Nashville and bought these gorgeous, svelte, Italian eggplant (melanzana, in Italian) from Corner Spring Farm. They had delightful names like Violeta di Toscano, Rosa Blanca, Clara, and Beatrice.
When I got home, I added them to the hefty stash of Black Beauty and Japanese eggplants I had harvested from my garden. I decided to make a day of it and cook all the eggplants at once. When I trimmed and peeled the skin, I was surprised to see the contrast in color of my stash of eggplants and the Italian varieties. Their flesh was so much whiter. Once roasted, I noticed the Italian eggplants were denser and maintained their shape better. Plus, they had the mouth-feel of artichoke hearts. Yum. Now I know why my mother would always choose Italian eggplants when we visited farmers markets; there is a difference. Next summer, I’m planning on growing more of the Italian varieties.
Yield: serves 8-10 as a main course
The ingredients list is divided into each of the cooking steps: roasted eggplant, marinara sauce, pasta, and basil and cheese layers.
3 medium to large eggplants, about 4 pounds
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Marinara Sauce (about 1⅓ quarts)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
2 28-ounce cans whole Italian plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or dash of cayenne pepper
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons granulated sugar (optional)
6 quarts water
1 tablespoon fine salt
1 pound penne ziti rigate pasta, cooked to al dente
1 pound sliced and then chopped, mozzarella
1 cup finely grated parmesan ( about 3 ounces)
1 cup basil leaves, about ¾ ounce
Mise en Place
Preheat oven to 425º
Remove the stem, and peel and slice the eggplant. Slice them about one-half inch thick; better to err on the side of thicker than thinner slices.
Pour olive oil in a bowl and brush each side of each slice very lightly with oil. I only used 3 tablespoons of oil for all the eggplants pictured above.
Arrange the eggplant slices on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Roast for 30-40 minutes. If you want them browned on each side, turn them over after about 20 minutes. I do not bother with this extra step. They should only be lightly browned when done. If you can’t decide if they are cooked enough, try tasting one. That’s what I do. You want them to be firm enough to hold their shape.
At this point, you could store the slices for one or two days in the refrigerator, or freeze. To prep for this recipe, measure out one pound (about 3 cups) and chop into 1.5 to 2 inch segments. Set aside.
While eggplant is roasting, start the marinara sauce. Heat olive oil in a 6-quart frying pan over low heat. Add garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes. Do not allow garlic to brown. Pour the tomatoes into the pan breaking them up with your fingertips as you do. Add salt, cayenne, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat stirring frequently. Turn heat down to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the fresh basil and turn the heat off. Set aside.
While the sauce simmers and the eggplant roasts, start a large pot of salted water over high heat for the ziti. When water comes to a full boil, add the ziti, bring it back to a full boil, stirring frequently, and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta. The pasta will cook more as it bakes.
Now you are ready to layer all the ingredients into a 9 by 13-inch casserole.
Preheat oven to 400º.
Pour one heaping cupful of sauce into the bottom of casserole pan.
Add half of pasta, half of eggplant, half of basil, half of mozzarella and one-third of parmesan,
Repeat layering starting with half of the remaining sauce, the rest of the pasta, basil, and mozzarella, and a third of the parmesan. End with the remaining sauce followed by the last of the grated parmesan.
Bake for 20 minutes on the middle rack of the oven.
Related Italian Dishes:
Tomato Pie for a Crowd
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
@judyschickens Marinara Sauce
Spiralized Zucchini (aka Zoodles) with Marinara Sauce
Roasted Tomatoes, Burrata, and Basil
Pasta, Mozzarella and Marinara Sauce
Tomatoes: The Crown Jewels of the Summer Kitchen Garden
My Favorite Gazpacho
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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.