Cheesy Baked Pasta with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Eggplant
Oh, pasta. Most definitely one of my favorite comfort foods. For one thing, it’s pasta. Carb-y and wonderful. For another, as a self-taught cook, pasta was certainly the main type of food that helped me learn my way around the kitchen. It holds a special place in my heart and my belly as I recall favorite recipes from my early cooking days. Pasta is sort of a blank canvas of a meal that can be dressed up in infinite variations depending on your mood and what ingredients you have on hand. In this way it reminds me a bit of a sandwich…stick any combination of ingredients between two slices of bread and voila, you have a meal. Though this sort of flexibility is a huge advantage on nights when I’m scrounging the fridge and pantry to create something that can pass for a meal, it also makes pasta dishes slightly less appealing to me than they used to be. Sort of a “been there, done that” mentality means that a pasta dish now needs to be really fantastic to truly “wow” me.
This dish wowed me. The whole thing was great, but it was the tomato-roasted red pepper sauce that really stood out to me. It gave the whole meal plenty of fresh flavor without being heavy or overwhelming the other components. We love eggplant and are always looking for more recipes that include it, so this is a nice addition to our recipe box. Next time I will probably add some sliced cremini mushrooms because really, why not? This is a pasta dish that is well worth repeating.
Yield: about 8 servings
2 red bell peppers
¾ cup panko
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 oz. grated Parmesan cheese (about 1½ cups), divided
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes, drained
1½ lbs. eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. minced fresh oregano (or ¼ tsp. dried oregano)
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
4 cups water
12 oz. pasta shapes, such as rotini
6 oz. mozzarella, sliced thin
2-3 tbsp. fresh basil, chopped
To roast the peppers, preheat the oven to 450˚ F. Place the whole peppers in a rimmed baking dish. Let cook, turning every 8-10 minutes, until the surface is evenly charred, about 20-25 minutes total. Transfer the roasted peppers to a bowl, cover with foil and let stand for 10 minutes to cool and loosen the skins. Once cool enough to handle, gently peel the skins from the peppers and discard. Seed the peppers and roughly chop. Set aside. Reduce the oven temperature to 375˚ F.
In a large skillet, combine the panko, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Toast the breadcrumbs over medium heat until lightly browned, stirring frequently. Transfer to a bowl and let cool slightly. Toss with ½ cup of the Parmesan. Wipe out the skillet.
In a food processor or blender, combine the diced tomatoes and roasted red peppers. Pulse briefly to combine and no large chunks remain. Set aside.
Line a large plate with a double layer of paper towels. Toss the eggplant lightly with a drizzle of olive oil. Microwave the eggplant uncovered, about 10 minutes, tossing halfway through. The eggplant will begin to dry and shrivel. Let cool slightly, then toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the now empty large skillet. Add the eggplant and cook until tender and browned, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Return the eggplant to a bowl or plate and set aside.
Lower the heat to medium-low and heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add in the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes. Sauté just until fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Stir in the tomato-pepper mixture and 1 teaspoon of salt, and increase the heat to medium-high. Stir in 3½ cups of water and the pasta. Cover and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring often, until the pasta is tender, about 15-18 minutes.
If the pasta seems to thick, stir in the remaining ½ cup of water. Add in the remaining 1 cup of Parmesan and the eggplant. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine, then top with the sliced mozzarella. Sprinkle the panko mixture over the top. Bake about 10 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and the topping is well browned. Sprinkle the basil over the top and serve.