Last week it was cool and breezy, this week it is swelteringly hot. At this time of the year you never know what the weather may bring but cool weather is just around the corner and I can’t wait. I love “sweater weather.” I wait all year for the first days when you wake up to a chilly morning, with the sky a brilliant blue and the sun rising to warm the air.
Today’s recipe in one that can be made anytime of the year but seems particularly appropriate for the cooler months. You can use the more traditional Italian vegetables, or substitute any of your favorites. Use what is in season and at its peak for the best flavor. I think those vegetables that tend to get soft as they bake are better choices.
If you use vegetable stock, this is a vegetarian dish. If you leave out the cheeses, it is vegan. If you are hosting vegetarians over the holidays, this is an excellent dish to have on hand. You can even make it in advance and freeze it, well wrapped, for up to about a month. As with most casseroles, this tastes better the second day when the flavors have had a chance to blend and mellow.
If you don’t have ziti on hand, other shapes of pasta that also work well are penne, farfalle, tubini, campanelle, casarecce, rigatoni, cavatappi, cavatelli, gemelli and orecchiette. Basically anything that is fairly sturdy and which holds thicker sauces well. Only boil them to a firm al dente stage because they will finish cooking in the oven. There is nothing worse than overcooked pasta.
There are several things to look for when you are choosing an eggplant. You want medium sized eggplants; if they are too small they were picked too early, if the are large they will be tough and bitter. You want to avoid any that have soft or brown spots, that sound hollow when tapped, are lightweight or if the skin doesn’t move when you press it. You want a slight give when you press on it, but the skin should bounce back. Choose one that is heavy for its size. The Japanese variety is a bit sweeter if you prefer that. If you buy eggplants at the right stage you won’t need to salt them to remove the bitterness.
I love the Italian flavors of this dish but you could certainly take it another direction if you want. You could add some Feta to the dish, use North African seasonings, or use olives instead of the capers. A very light sprinkled of fresh lemon juice would add a brightness to the flavor, but be careful not to curdle the sauce.
If you wanted a casserole with meat, you can saute off 1/2 to 1 lb ground beef, pork, or veal and toss it with the sauce before combining it with the vegetables. It becomes a one dish meal that is easy to make ahead and is perfect for picnics, potlucks or tailgating parties. You could easily add in some turkey after Thanksgiving for another way to utilize your leftovers. In that case I would replace the oregano and basil with sage and rosemary or thyme.
Whether you server this as a vegetarian main course or a side dish to accompany poultry or meats, I know you will love its cheesy, gooey goodness any time of the year!
Kitchen Skill: How to Seed a Tomato
Cut out the stem and slice in half horizontally – along the “equator.” Working over the sink or a small bowl, gently squeeze each half until most of the seeds are removed. You can use your fingertip to run around the inside of the tomato if you want to get every single seed, but it isn’t necessary.
- 2 tbsp butter or olive oil (if using oil, add extra salt)
- 2 tbsp flour
- 2 cups vegetable, chicken, or veal stock
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 medium onion, peeled, stem end cut off, and cut in half
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper
- 2 lb plum tomatoes, (about 15 to 18) stemmed, seeded, and quartered
- 2 medium-sized eggplants, stemmed, quartered, and sliced
- 2 large yellow bell peppers, seeded, and quartered
- 2 large poblano or Anaheim chiles stemmed, seeded, and quartered
- 1 large red onion, peeled, halved, and cut into eighths
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 2 tbsp capers, well drained and lightly rinsed
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper
- 1/2 bunch fresh basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons (chiffonade); reserve some for garnish
- Pasta and Cheeses
- 1 lb ziti pasta, cooked in well-salted water until al dente and drained
- 1 lb mozzarella or Monterey Jack cheese, shaved thinly or shredded
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Set oven rack to top third of oven and preheat to 350°F. Lightly butter a 9x13-inch baking pan.
- Make Sauce: In a saucepan, melt butter. Stir in flour and cook, whisking about 2 minutes. Stir in vegetable stock, a little bit at a time. Add onion and Parmesan, and cook until it reaches the thickness you would like. Remove onion (or if you like a more prominent onion flavor, leave it in while the other vegetables roast). Set aside.
- Roast Vegetables: Place tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, chiles, onions, garlic and capers on a baking sheet with sides and toss with oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Roast in the top third of the oven for 30 minutes or until vegetables are beginning to brown. Toss occasionally with a heatproof spatula.
- Transfer vegetables to a cutting board and when cool enough to handle, roughly chop until bite sized. Add in 3/4 of the cut basil, tossing to evenly distribute. Reserve remaining 1/4 of the basil for a garnish.
- Assembly and Baking: Increase oven to 375°F. Ladle 1/3 of sauce on the bottom of prepared baking pan. Layer the ingredients as follows: 1/2 vegetables, 1/2 cooked pasta, 1/2 mozzarella, remaining pasta, 1/3 sauce, remaining mozzarella, remaining vegetables, remaining sauce, and the Parmesan.
- Cover with foil and bake for approximately 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more or until bubbly and top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let sit at least 15 minutes before cutting. Cut into individual servings and sprinkle lightly with a little of the reserved basil and serve.
- May be baked up to 2 days ahead, covered with foil, and kept in the refrigerator. Reheat in a low oven before serving.