Who doesn't love a good ol' baked pasta dish? Pasta combined with sauce, covered with cheese and baked until it's golden-brown and bubbly is a crowd-pleaser. It's a versatile dish. You can add meat or not. You can vegetables or not. However, you can have a delicious baked pasta dish or a pedestrian baked pasta dish that's not much better than throwing a frozen dinner, depending on how you put together your ingredients. It can turn out watery and flavorless if you don't take the time to season your ingredients and bring out the maximum amount of flavor. This is not to say that it will take a long time. You can quickly put together a delicious sauce without having to resort to that jar in your cupboard. Do I have a jar of sauce in my cupboard? Of course I do! But I have many more cans of whole, peeled tomatoes than I do jarred pasta sauce. You can make a quick sauce with that can of tomatoes that will taste much better than the jar and it won't take much time at all.
This sauce is made up of canned tomatoes, Italian sausage, eggplant, onions, and garlic. If you were to throw all of those ingredients in a pot and let them cook, then mix in your pasta, you would have a pretty mediocre pasta dish. The way you treat the ingredients and the order in which you cook them makes a difference. For the eggplant, I dice it up and toss it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast on a sheet pan in a 400° oven. Cooking them this way helps to concentrate their flavor, reduce the amount of moisture, and begins to caramelize them. I like to cook them this way because you can do other things while they are cooking.
For the sauce, it's important to build a flavor base. I start with the Italian sausage. When you put the sausage in your hot pan, leave them alone for a couple of minutes and let them brown a bit. Once you get some color, then you can break them up with your wooden spoon. Then you can add the onions and let them cook down with the sausage. Then add the garlic. Once you've developed this flavor, which takes maybe ten minutes, then you can add your tomatoes.
If you start with the eggplant, by the time your water comes to a boil and the pasta is cooked, you should have your eggplant cooked and your sauce ready to go. Also, it's very important to salt your water heavily. A pinch of salt is not sufficient. Once your water comes to a boil, add enough salt until the water tastes seasoned. Not overly salty but it should taste like there is salt in the water. This makes a difference.
BAKED PASTA WITH SAUSAGE, EGGPLANT AND RICOTTA
Ingredients: 1 lb of short pasta (I used Pipe Rigate), 1-28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes with juice, 1 lb Italian sausage with casing removed, 1 large eggplant cut into 1/2-inch dice, 1 diced onion, 3 minced cloves of garlic, 8 oz ricotta cheese, 8 oz shredded mozzarella cheese, grated parmesan cheese, 1 TB sugar, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1 bay leaf, olive oil, salt, pepper
- Preheat oven to 400°.
- Toss diced eggplant with enough olive oil to coat. Season with salt & pepper.
- Spread onto a sheet pan in a single layer.
- Roast in oven for 30 minutes or until soft and caramelized.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
- In another pan, heat 1 TB of olive oil until just beginning to smoke.
- Add the sausage and leave alone for 2-3 minutes until it browns.
- Then add the diced onions and break up the sausage.
- Cook until the onions are soft and beginning to brown and the sausage is cooked through.
- Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute.
- Add the can of tomatoes along with all of the juice.
- Break up the tomatoes with your wooden spoon.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the oregano, bay leaf, and sugar.
- Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring to break down the tomatoes, until the sauce reduces and the tomatoes have broken down. About 20 minutes.
- Add the pasta to your pot of salted, boiling water.
- Cook until it's slightly underdone.
- Drain, and return to your pot.
- Add the sauce.
- Add the roasted eggplant.
- Add a sprinkling pf parmesan cheese.
- Mix until everything is combined.
- Spread have the past mixture into a baking dish, large enough to hold all of the pasta.
- Dollop 6-8 spoonfools of ricotta cheese evenly over the pasta.
- Spread the rest of the pasta mixture over the ricotta cheese.
- Sprinkle more parmesan cheese.
- Spread the shredded mozzarella cheese on top.
- Bake for 20-30 minutes in the 400° oven until the cheese is golden brown and the pasta is bubbling.
- Let it cool for a few minutes, then eat.