I've recently developed, entirely by accident, a sort of unlikely ritual. On my way home from work at my field placement, exhausted emotionally and physically by a day spent in a middle school, I stop at the farmers market or supermarket (or both), pick up ingredients for dinner, return home, and while listening to the Boyfriend's stories of the day, spend a good hour or two in the kitchen, making dinner. At first I thought I might really be losing it. Why on earth, after a day in which my every store of empathy, compassion, energy, sanity, and sense of order has been taxed, challenged, and employed in mysterious and beautiful ways, do I find myself compelled to navigate the treacherous and narrow aisles of a supermarket and stand in the kitchen and peel potatoes and carrots, or fry endless batches of eggplant, in preparation for a much too elaborate weekday dinner? Wouldn't it be so much healthier and more normal to come straight home, flop onto the couch, demand the Boyfriend mix me a drink, put my feet up and order some thai? I mean, don't get me wrong, we do that a fair amount too. But lately it seems, what my body and heart need is this decompression, a couple of hours to put between my day as a social work intern, adrift at times without a map, desperately using instinct and compassion to fight the rising tide of hopelessness that threatens at regular intervals to lap at my pant legs, and my time as me: the Girlfriend, me: the Friend, me: the Daughter, me: the Sister. When I realized the dinner phenomenon was not some psychotic break, but rather served a real purpose, I kind of wanted to hug myself for being so smart. Not my brain, mind you, but my survival instinct, which knew just what it needed to keep things balanced. There are times throughout the day when in the midst of a screaming pack of 11 year olds, or after a particularly difficult session I find my mind drifting briefly to what I want to make for dinner. I feared for a while that these fantasies which seemed to be so necessary to get me through the day meant I was in school for the wrong thing entirely. But I've realized they're actually just the part of me that knows sometimes its necessary to shut the brain off, take a breath, and think of something delicious. Like a good night's sleep, it's one of those seemingly selfish acts that actually--duh--makes it possible for me to be better to those around me.
But enough about me. The point of this really, is to tell you about two baked pastas I made during two nights of this new ritual. I got rather obsessed with the idea of making baked pasta after watching a Martha Stewart Every Day Food show on the subject. The first I tried was a vegetarian penne from a Mario Batali cookbook I have, and the second is a much simpler, more time-friendly soccer mom type recipe from the very episode of Every Day Food I watched. I liked both, though the second was so fast I had to make a time-consuming chopped salad to go with it. Both, though, are delicious.
. Great with a nice vinegar-y cucumber salad or some other crunchy chopped veggie on the side.
Mario Batali's is a little fussy what with all the steps--with all due respect to Big Red, I'd change a few things next time--but so satisfying and hearty without the heavy, sick feeling you get from a lot of overly cheesy baked pastas. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course (I consumed some delicious cheesy mac at this bar last night which was well worth the bellyache).
Of course, after all the meticulous layering of eggplant and pasta and dotting of sauce and sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs, I neglected to take a picture before digging in. But here you go: a delicious cross-section.
Served with a dollop of fresh ricotta drizzled with olive oil, and a plop of extra sauce to combat the slightly dry nature. I recommend doing both.
You can find the recipe for the orzo and chicken here. A great thing to make for a group of friends when you're short on time and money. The Mario Batali one is below, for when you need a little extra time in the kitchen, breathing, listening to a friendly voice, and packing away the day's events one at a time, with the flip of each slice of eggplant.
Mario Batali's Pasta Alla Norma, from Molto Italiano
2 Lbs small or med eggplant, ct into 1/4-in thick slices
6 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Lb penne
2 Cups Basic Tomato Sauce (recipe below, or use your own)
1 Cup toasted breadcrumbs
1/2 Cup freshly grated pecorino romano
10 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
8 oz piece of ricotta salata, for grating
-Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 Tablespoons salt.
-Meanwhile, in a 10-12 in saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Working in batches, saute the eggplant slices, seasoning them with salt and pepper, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. (Note from the Mouse: I had to keep adding oil to the pan for each batch since the eggplant soaks up any liquid like a sponge. There's probably a culinarily-savvy way of avoiding this, but Mario doesn't offer any.)
-Preheat the oven to 375. Grease a 9x12 in baking dish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
-Cook the penne in the boiling water for 2 minutes short of the package instructions; it should still be quite firm. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Drain very well, place in a large bowl, and toss with 1 cup of the tomato sauce.
-Cover the bottom of the baking dish with 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce. Top with half the bread crumbs, then add half the pasta. Arrange half of the eggplant slices, overlapping them slightly, on top of the pasta. Dot about 1/4 cup of tomato sauce over the eggplant, and top with half of the pecorino and half of the basil. Top with the remaining pasta, arrange the remaining eggplant over the pasta, and dot with the remaining tomato sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining pecorino and basil, and then the remaining bread crumbs, and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. (Note from the Mouse: Fussy, no? The layers are nice, but really it all comes out in the wash. You could just toss it all together and have a great end serving as long as you get the top right. Also, here's where I'd add more sauce next time. Baking a pasta dries things out, and this was a little naked for my taste. The sauce recipe makes extra, so just be generous.)
-Bake for 45 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Place a generous portion of pasta on each plate (oh, Big Red), grate ricotta salata over, and serve.
Mario's Basic Tomato Sauce
(makes 4 cups)
1/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil
1 spanish onion, diced in 1/4 in
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 medium carrot, shredded
2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes
-In 3-qt saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook until the carrot is quite soft, about 5 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes, with their juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer until as thick as hot cereal, about 30 minutes. Season with salt.