Week Night Yum Yum: Rigatoni with Eggplant and Smoked Mozzarella

Monday, March 1, 2010

One of my all-time favorite pasta dishes is the Barilotti alle Melanzane e Scamorza from Canaletto's in Newport Beach. It's a barrel-shaped pasta with eggplant, tomato sauce, basil and melted smoked mozzarella cheese. Yes, I said smoked mozzarella cheese. It's wonderful. The pasta is soft yet sturdy, the eggplant is tender and sweet, the sauce is a delicately herbed and has a hint of sweetness and tartness about it. And the smoked mozzarella adds a warm, smoky flavor that just elevates the whole dish into a whole new arena of comfort food.

If you life in Orange County, it's worth a trip to Canaletto's. If not (or you just can't make it out all the time like me), then try this recipe below. I think I've come pretty close to recreating the dish, definitely hitting on the major flavor points and overall feel of the dish. I couldn't find (or have the patience to make) the pasta they use from scratch, but a good rigatoni will more than get the job done. By roasting the eggplants, I bring out their natural sweetness and can achieve that heavenly soft texture that just melts in your mouth. And with some store-bought help with my favorite marinara sauce, this becomes a weeknight meal you can prepare in a snap, but the quality is like a Saturday date night out.

Rigatoni with Eggplant and Smoked Mozzarella serves 2 large portions or 4 small

1/2 pound rigatoni pasta
extra virgin olive oil
3-4 Japanese (or Chinese) eggplants or 1 small Italian eggplant
1/2 cup white onion, chopped small (about 1 small onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp fresh basil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 jar marinara sauce (recommended: Mario Batali basic marinara)
smoked mozzarella (1 ball), cut into 1/2 inch cubes
grated Parmesano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the stems and ends off the eggplants and discard. Cut each eggplant in half lengthwise, and then cut into 1 inch cubes. Place in a glass bowl (a metal one will react with the eggplant and give a bitter taste!) and coat with olive oil. Season with a good pinch of salt and some pepper and toss well. Add more oil if needed, as eggplants like to soak up all liquids. You want them to be nice and coated but not soaking wet from oil. Place in a baking dish and roast uncovered for about 20-25 minutes, or until very tender. Turn them once during the roasting process, halfway through.

Set a large pot with water and bring to a boil for the pasta. When water comes to a roaring boil, add a large pinch of kosher salt, then add in pasta. Cook according to package directions (10-14 minutes) until al dente.

In a pan, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onions and a small pinch of salt and pepper. Cook on medium-low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about another minute. Add the red pepper flakes and about 3/4 of the jar of marinara sauce. Combine well and let cook so flavors will meld, about 5 minutes, on low heat.

When nice and tender and caramelized, remove the eggplant and place directly into the sauce mixture. Add the fresh basil and incorporate to combine. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste. The flame under the sauce can be turned off at this point.

When pasta is cooked, drain well and place the pasta directly into the pan with the sauce and eggplant. Add half of the smoked mozzarella cheese, and toss everything to combine. Pour the pasta-eggplant mixture into a baking dish (you can even roast your eggplant in the same one and just reuse it for this!) and top with the remaining smoked mozzarella. Add a good sprinkling of the parmesan cheese on top and bake uncovered for 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and just starting to get golden brown.

Serve hot.

Serving suggestions: mixed green salad with fig-balsamic vinaigrette, medium to full-bodied red wine.

My Notes:
If you want to make this kid-friendly, then omit the red pepper flakes and proceed with the rest of the recipe. Most kids won't have a clue that they're eating eggplant and will love it!

You can make this entire dish a day in advance and refrigerate until ready to bake. Just bring out to room temperature about 10 minutes before setting into the heated oven so the cheese can melt better.

Makes great leftovers and heats very well.

I don't recommend freezing this dish as the eggplant is very delicate.

The smoked mozzarella really makes this dish, but if you can't find it, then you can certainly substitute with a buffalo mozzarella cheese. Just make sure to pat it dry very well with paper towels so it can melt properly and get a nice light brown color.

Having a dinner party? This recipe can easily be doubled or even tripled! Just make sure to double your baking dish size as well or just use two!


Anonymous said...

Hi - I just found this recipe. What size is the jar of marinara sauce?

Mishy said...

1 jar = 24 oz (give or take)