It is no secret that I love pasta. More than your regular ‘ol pasta dish made on the stove top, what I love most is a good and hearty, baked pasta dish. There is something so comforting about baked pasta, I am sure it has a bit to do with the extra cheesiness (aka fat and calories), but either way it’s always good. This particular recipe really caught my eye because though it’s traditional in concept, the ingredients are a bit unique. Although I know eggplant isn’t in season, ironically throughout the winter when I looked for it, it either wasn’t in stock or didn’t look very good. This past grocery trip was the first time I saw it there and looking good, in a while.
Loaded with veggies (yes, this does offset the cheese and heavy cream) and full of flavor, this baked pasta really is a meal all in itself. The fresh basil brings a wonderful bright taste to the dish and the fresh mozzarella is creamy and melty but not too over the top. The original recipe called for a whole pound of cheese, but as I was adding the cubes of cheese, I realized that by the time I got to 3/4 of a pound it was more than enough. The pine nut crunch on top is quite the finishing move, it basically tastes like pesto without the oil. It was so good and crunchy, that I think next time I make this I will actually make a bit more of that.
As stated in the recipe below, if you are concerned about fat and calories from the heavy cream (though I don’t think you should be, each serving will have barely 2 tablespoons), you could either go with half and half or whole milk or just hit a few extra yoga classes and enjoy your life. I made this over a weekend for nice dinner and we enjoyed for meals throughout the week, I love dishes like that.
Penne with Eggplant and Pine Nut Crunch (Gluten-free)
Adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine, March 2011
1 unpeeled large (or 2 small) eggplant (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 medium yellow bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch squares (I used one yellow and one orange)
2 cups organic grape tomatoes
3 large garlic cloves, divided
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cups (firmly packed) fresh basil leaves, divided
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 28-ounce can organic whole tomatoes in juice
1 cup organic heavy whipping cream (you can use less, use half and half or milk if you are concerned about fat and calories)
1 pound organic gluten-free brown rice pasta
3/4 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Preheat oven to 425°F. Place eggplant and peppers on a large rimmed baking sheet. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise; add to sheet. Using garlic press, squeeze 1 garlic clove onto vegetables. Drizzle vegetables with olive oil; toss. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables until tender, stirring often, 35 to 45 minutes.
Combine 2/3 cup basil, 1/2 cup Parmesan, pine nuts, and 1 garlic clove in the food processor. Blend until crumbly. Season topping with salt and set aside.
Blend tomatoes with juice, cream, 1 1/3 cups basil, and 1 garlic clove in processor until smooth. Season sauce with salt and pepper.
Cook pasta in pot of boiling salted water according to package directions. Only cook until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain. Return to pot or a large bowl. Toss with vegetables, sauce, and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Transfer to 13x9x2-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with fresh mozzarella and pine nut topping.
Bake pasta until heated through, 25 to 35 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes and serve.