This is a story about a great dish inspired by airline food. Sort of.
A few years ago, I took a trip to New York City, and flew Jet Blue’s non-stop service from Oakland to JFK. Jet Blue is famous for their real-time TV, and the Food Network is one of the offerings. In between the seemingly endless stream of Emeril programs, there was some kind of show about visiting San Francisco. At one of the stops (the location of which I forgot), a chef demonstrated some kind of baked pasta dish that was comprised of layers of pasta, cheese and vegetables. Perhaps it was because I was flying on a low-cost airline or because the alternative TV offerings were dull, but this not exactly earthshaking concept of layering pasta, vegetables and cheese really caught my attention.
A few weeks after I returned home, I gave it a try, and after making if a few times, wrote down the instructions (which I have included below). The process is simple: cook some pasta (penne is a good choice), mix ricotta cheese with a few eggs and garlic, cook a few different vegetables, cut up some tomatoes, and layer it into a baking dish, being sure to arrange the vegetables and cheese in discrete areas.
My favorite vegetables for this dish are eggplant (sliced, then roasted in the oven), zucchini (sliced and roasted), and tomatoes, with basil as a flavoring herb. A definite summer combination, so if you live in a less mild place (i.e., less fog blessed in the summer), you’ll need to pick a cool summer day to make this, as the oven runs for a while.
The potential variations for this dish are endless and can be adapted to the seasons (i.e., times when one hour of oven operation is acceptable). You could try different herbs (rosemary, parsley, thyme, fennel greens), capers, dried wild mushrooms, canned tomatoes, frozen roasted tomatoes, winter greens, and pretty much any non-starchy vegetable.
Pasta Caprese - Baked Penne with Vegetables and Ricotta Custard
- 1 pound dry penne or other shaped pasta not spaghetti or linguine
- 1 pound ricotta cheese
- 1-2 eggs
- A few cloves of garlic
- A few Japanese Chinese or Italian eggplant (globe eggplant will work too, but will have lots of seeds)
- 6-8 fresh tomatoes cored and cut into eighths or sixths (or whole canned tomatoes, similarly sliced)
- 1/2 pound white or brown mushrooms cut into 1/8-1/4" slices
- 3 zucchini
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Grana cheese
- Fresh Basil sliced, a little reserved for garnish
Prepare the cheese
- Mix the ricotta with the eggs, some salt and pepper, a chopped garlic clove, and a 1/4 cup grated cheese. If you like, add some chopped herbs to the cheese (I prefer the "pure" ricotta experience).
Cook the vegetables
- Eggplant - Preheat oven to 450 F. Cut the eggplant in 1/4" thick slices, then toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread onto a baking sheet and roast for 15-20 minutes, turning at the halfway point. When done, put it in a bowl. Alternatively, fry the slices in a skillet.
- Mushrooms - Slice and bake with the eggplant, or saute in a skillet.
- Zucchini - Slice into 1/4" thick slices, and bake with the eggplant, or saute in a skillet.
- Cook the pasta as directed. Drain and rinse, or toss with olive oil (to prevent sticking).
Assembly and Baking
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Lightly oil an oven-proof baking dish.
- Place a layer of pasta on the bottom of the dish. In a capricious way, lay down "blobs" of each item (how do you say "blob" in Italian?): a blob of cheese here, then some pieces of eggplant, some mushroom, some pasta, a few pieces of tomato, some fresh basil. The items should each have their own area---the goal is to have distinct areas of flavor.
- When the bowl is full, sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
- Bake, covered with foil (or the oven-proof lid that came with the bowl) for 40-50 minutes, or until the center is hot and cheese is set.