Chef Ottolenghi calls this pasta bake 'luxurious' - the semi-fried carrots, celery, and eggplant give the pasta a nice edge. Ottolenghi's recipe calls for orzo pasta, but I prefer a bit more bite to my pasta so I opted for ditalini, little short tubes of macaroni. The neat thing about this recipe is that the pasta is rinsed and then cooked in the baking dish with olive oil, broth, the vegetables and their juices, and tomato paste. This process does make the flavour silky and yes, luxurious! Must be the starch from the pasta that makes the resulting sauce around the pasta and vegetables so silky! Put some cheese into the blend, oregano and thyme sprinkles on the tomato slices atop it all and you have one jazzy pasta and vegetable casserole!
Baked Orzo with Mozzarella and Oregano
1 large eggplant, cut into ¾ inch cubes
salt and black pepper
100 ml olive oil
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½ inch chunks
3 celery stalks, tipped and cut into ½ inch chunks
3 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
250 g. orzo pasta, rinsed for a couple minutes under cool water
1 heaping tsp. tomato paste
400 ml. vegetable or chicken broth
3 tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped
3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems
Zest of one small lemon
120 g. whole milk mozzarella, chopped into ½ inch cubes
60 g. parmesan cheese, grated
3 medium tomatoes, sliced into ½ inch slices
½ tsp dried oregano for sprinkling on the tomato slices
Making the Dish:
- Place the prepared eggplant in a colander and toss with a generous amount of salt. Let the eggplant drain in the sink for 30 minutes. Then, rinse with cool water and dry on paper towels.
- Heat the olive oil in a deep fry pan over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant and fry for 8 minutes until the eggplant is browned all the way around.
- Remove the eggplant to a colander that you have lined with paper towel layers. Let the eggplant drain of oil.
- Add the carrots and celery chunks to the remaining hot oil and fry for about 8 minutes, until they are crisping around the edges. Place a layer of paper towels over the eggplant and remove the carrots and celery to the paper towels to drain some of the oil off them.
- Lower the heat to medium and add the onions and garlic to the pan, frying for about three minutes until they are sweating nicely.
- Toss in the rinsed orzo and continue frying to ‘brown’ the pasta a bit.
- Add the tomato paste broth, lemon zest and stir to break up the tomato paste.
- Turn off the heat under the pan and add the fresh oregano, thyme, the carrots and celery and the eggplant.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and place the rack in the center of the oven.
- Stir everything together and add the mozzarella and half the Parmesan cheese. Toss lightly and turn the whole mess into a baking dish.
- Correct the salt and pepper seasonings. Lay the tomato slices atop in a pretty pattern.
- Sprinkle on the dried oregano and some more black pepper. Sprinkle the rest of the Parmesan cheese.
- Bake uncovered for about 40 minutes or until the pasta tastes al dente and most of the juices are absorbed.
- Serve hot with grilled meat or a green salad.
I sat in the sun on the back porch this afternoon with a bowl of this pasta and a cold glass of pinot grigio - what a luxurious lunch! Eating and browsing through Calvin Trillin's collection of shorts on various foodie experiences gave me a chuckle, The guy has a great sense of humor and has traveled the world exploring different food experiences. Then, he trundles his way back to New York City to write about things and publish in the New Yorker. What a life.
I could have gotten all jealous and blue that my traveling days have come screeching to a halt, but then I looked up and out my back window. There was a bluebird flitting across the back yard toward the wattle fence that SB put up around the newly turned garden beds. Just that pretty sight made me realize that I don't have it half bad! Took another bite of Ottolenghi's pasta, a little sip of wine and contemplated cleaning out one more of the flower beds - ahhh, Spring!
Head over to the I Heart Cooking Club to see what other pasta recipes are making their way into the club posts this week! You can see them here !