Baked Eggplant and Pasta Casserole
Serves 6 – 8
2 pounds baby purple eggplants – not the long thin ones, but small versions of regular purple eggplant – about 6 of them (6 ounces each)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups marinara sauce
½ teaspoon dried oregano (optional – use it if you’re using fairly plain Marinara sauce, but taste yours first to decide)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup pitted oil-cured black olives, cut in half
4 pickled green peperoncini (the ones that are light green in color, thin and a couple of inches long, packed in brine), drained, stemmed, and thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
2 tablespoons capers, drained
½ cup minced fresh parsley
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
12 ounces dried ziti or penne, cooked to just al dente
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch dice (about 2 cups)
Trim the top and bottom of each eggplant. Cut off four strips of peel lengthwise from each one – sort of north, south, east, and west, so you end up with stripes of peel and about half the peel taken off. Slice the eggplant crosswise into ½-inch slices. Toss the slices in a colander with at least a tablespoon of the kosher salt, then put a bowl on top of the eggplants in the colander and something heavy (like a couple of cans) inside the bowl. Let the eggplant slices drain for a half hour, then rinse them in cold water, and dry them with paper towels, squeezing each slice to get out the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan, then add the garlic and oregano and cook for about a minute. Add the marinara sauce and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the capers, olives, and sliced peperoncini and cook for 5 more minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Spread a half cup of the sauce in the bottom of a ceramic or glass 13 x 9 –inch baking dish. Add half of the cooked pasta. Then layer a third of the eggplant slices, 2/3 cup of sauce, half of the mozzarella, half of the parsley, and a quarter cup of the grated cheese. Repeat one more time; pasta, eggplant, sauce, parsley, mozzarella, and grated cheese. Top with the final layer of eggplant slices, the rest of the sauce, and the final half cup of grated cheese. Measure out a third of a cup of hot tap water. Using a spoon, pull the eggplant away from the side of the dish slightly as you pour the water evenly around the inside edge of the dish. Drizzle the top with a little olive oil. Set the dish on a baking sheet. Cover the dish completely with foil, tenting it to make sure it doesn’t touch the ingredients.
Bake the dish for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes, until the grated cheese is browned. Let the dish rest for 15 minutes, then serve.