Day 1 of “The Box Project.” In case you missed my last post, for the next month or so I am on a mission. That is…A Box Project Mission. What’s the Box Project? Well, it’s a box of delicious treats I brought back from Italy and am always saving “for something special.” I finally decided, what am I waiting for? On top of it, I have a bad habit of food shopping too often and I hate to say it, but sometimes things unfortunately go to waste. The idea with the Box Project is to use ingredients that I already have on hand and add necessary proteins, dairy or vegetables. So…day 1.
Pasta al Forno.
Pasta al Forno is basically an Italian baked pasta dish made with a pasta, cheese and preferably meat/vegetables. Well, I had a lovely can of tomatoes that I actually got last year that the real estate agent left in our kitchen “goody bag”, (when I was in Florence, Italy, the real estate agent had a bag full of groceries, ahem, and some wine in the kitchen for our arrival). Along with the tomatoes, I also had a jar of Pesto Rosso with basil that I purchased at Conand. Conand is a supermarket chain in Italy and I swear, every time I go in there, I come out with 6 bags…and that’s on a good day. Also on hand was a jar of San Marzano tomato paste, penne and ricotta (yes, when I can’t make my own ricotta or get to my usual cheese guy, I have to settle for supermarket ricotta). The extras I purchased for this dish were some parmigiana, eggplant and hot sausage links. So without further adeu…
Baked Pasta alla Norma
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 pack of hot sausage links
1 large eggplant (properly prepared, see below)
2 tbsp. garlic, finely chopped
1 can of tomato paste
6 tbsp. tomato pesto
2 tbsp. fresh basil, torn (NEVER CUT BASIL!!)
1 tbsp. oregano
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
1 box of penne
2 cups of ricotta
½ cup of parmigiana, grated
Set a medium size pan over medium/high heat. Add 1 tbsp. olive oil. Uncase your sausage links (I do this simply by wetting the link and cutting the case with a knife to remove it). Tear out all of the sausage into little pieces and add in the pan. Cook for 30-45 minutes (this depends on how well you like your sausage of course). Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl to cool.
Prepare your eggplant. First off, clean it. Then cut it into slices and layer them in a colander, sprinkle on some salt. Let the eggplant release some liquid. Then rinse the eggplant, squeeze it with your hands and pat it dry. I know this seems like a lot of work, but trust me, it’s worth it. I picked up this technique when I was studying cooking in Italy. Not only does it make the eggplant less bitter, but by releasing the liquid, it is easier to fry. After you have rinsed and dried the eggplant, chop it coarsely. Add to the pan that you had the sausage in. I basically used the fat that the sausage released to fry the eggplant in. Not the healthiest I know, but delicious nonetheless.
Fry the eggplant until a little golden and crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. By this point, you should have water boiling. Add your garlic to the pan and let it fry until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and remove all of the excess oil and fat from the pan. Put the pan back over medium heat. Add the tomato paste and let it “toast” slightly. Add 6 tbsp. of red pesto (basically, tomato pesto), a splash of pasta water, the basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook it very briefly. Six minutes top. Strain the pasta and add it to the tomato sauce, along with the sausage and eggplant. Let it cook over low heat while the tomato sauce reduces slightly. In the meantime prepare your ricotta.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium size bowl, whip 2 cups of ricotta with the parmigiana. Add the fried garlic. You will want to get out a casserole dish to prepare the pasta in. Add one layer of the pasta and then add dollops of the ricotta mix. Continue doing so until filled. Put the pasta in the oven and bake for 30 minutes to one hour. Remove, let it cool and then DIG IN!!!