Baked Penne with Eggplant and Fontina
This dish is best eaten immediately out of the oven, as the pasta continues to absorb the sauce once baked. Leftovers are still good, just a bit less saucy. All the components can be prepared ahead of time, including the pasta, stored in the fridge, and assembled and baked just before serving. Feel free to halve the recipe, or bake the penne in two separate batches, as I did above.
I find it easiest to leave the skins on the tomatoes, then run the cooked sauce through a food mill to remove the skins and puree the sauce smooth. If you lack a food mill, you can skin the tomatoes with the following method: Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Cut a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato. One by one, dunk each tomato in the water for about 10 seconds using a slotted spoon. Let cool, then slip off the skins, and proceed with the recipe, pulsing the cooked, cooled sauce in a food processor.
I’ve become a convert to Tinkayada’s rice penne, which has a nice firm and chewy texture, but feel free to use any smallish pasta you like.
Makes 10-12 servings
Spicy tomato sauce:
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 to 3 pounds tomatoes (preferably dry-farmed, romas or san marzanos)
splash red wine or water
1 1/2 to 2 pounds japanese or small globe eggplant, sliced into 3/4″ rounds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces dry penne pasta
3 tablespoons chopped basil, plus some pretty leaves for garnish
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
3/4 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup cubed fontina
2/3 cup cubed aged provolone
about 2 ounces grana padana or parmesan, for grating
Make the sauce:
Halve each tomato crosswise, then squeeze or scoop out the seeds into a strainer set over a bowl to catch the juices. Dice the tomatoes. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large soup pot or dutch oven over a medium flame. When it shimmers, add the onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, chile flakes, and salt, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 2 more minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until broken down and reduced to a thick sauce, about 30 minutes. You may need to reduce the flame to prevent splatters. Add splashes of wine or water if the pan looks dry before the tomatoes have broken down.
When the sauce is done, let it cool slightly, then pass it through a food mill to puree it smooth and remove the skins.
Meanwhile, roast the eggplant:
While the sauce is cooking, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400ºF. Toss together the eggplant, olive oil and salt, and place on an oiled baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until the eggplant is very soft and golden, 20-25 minutes, flipping the slices over when the bottoms begin to brown. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375ºF. When the eggplant is cool, cut each round into bite-sized pieces.
Prepare the rest:
Cook the penne according to the package instructions in well-salted water until al dente. Drain well. (If you’re not baking the pasta right away, rinse it in cool water, drain well, and toss with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking.)
In a large bowl, toss together the penne, sauce, eggplant, basil, parsley, olives, fontina and provolone. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or pepper if you like, then spread the pasta in an oiled 2 1/2-3 quart baking dish (such as a 9×13″ lasagna pan). Cover with a good layer of freshly-grated parmesan.
Cover the dish with a lid or foil, and bake until the pasta is hot and the cheese is melty and gooey, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately, topped with more parmesan and small basil leaves.
Leftovers will keep for several days, tightly covered, in the fridge. Reheat before eating.