When I invited some friends over for dinner a few weeks ago, I immediately began to brainstorm recipe ideas. I wanted to make something easy and something that everyone would like, including pickier eaters. Italian came to mind immediately – who doesn’t like Italian food? I settled on a pasta of some sort as the main course, which is typically simple to make and popular with everyone. But I wanted to take it a step further with the simplicity factor, and decided to make a baked pasta. This way I could be totally relaxed when my friends came over, put the the pasta in the oven, and enjoy a drink with them while it baked. Who wants to be fiddling in the kitchen for a long time when your friends are already there?
With the idea of baked pasta in mind, I began scouring cookbooks and pinterest for inspiration. It was then that I came across an eggplant pasta dish that looked so intriguing that I had to try it right away. I followed the recipe pretty similarly, but then decided to bake it with some cheese – within one bite, I announced to my husband that I would be making it for both of our upcoming parties. The poor guy has since had it about five more times in the past month, but I haven’t heard a peep of complaint from him – maybe he hasn’t minded!
If you were to read the ingredients of this dish, you probably wouldn’t think it would be that special. I find eggplant to be a little odd in terms of texture and flavor, and I think most red pasta sauces are seriously lacking in flavor. But there’s something about this dish that is quite special. The eggplant adds almost a meaty quality to the sauce, and soaks up all of the wonderful Italian flavors. There are a few other stars in this dish: the caramelized onions, which give it so much depth and flavor; the red pepper flakes, which add some heat; and the sherry vinegar, which really brightens up the sauce. This unassuming little pasta dish has quickly become one of my favorite Italian meals.
I should also mention that the unbaked version of this pasta is delicious too. But if you’ve got the time and love some bubbly cheese on your pasta, you’re not going to regret the extra 20 minutes of baking time.
Last, I wanted to share a couple of tips that have helped me plan a dinner party. I am by no means an expert, but these basic tips have made a big difference to me:
- Don’t try a new recipe on the night of your party. There’s nothing worse than serving a dish and then realizing that you wish you had done something differently. Part of cooking is trial and error, so practice the recipe in the week or two before so that you can tweak it – and perfect it – for the dinner.
- Make a timeline. Write down when you want to serve dinner and work backwards – and don’t be afraid to get detailed. The more you think about it in advance, the less frantic you’ll be on the day of. Do you need to switch the oven temperature after making a certain part of the meal? By all means, write that sort of thing down.
- Choose simple recipes – and ones that complement each other. One time I had a party and made several time-consuming appetizers. I was frantically trying to get everything done in time, and felt like everything had to happen all at once. Choose recipes that don’t all require the oven at different temperatures or that require your attention at the same time. Guests won’t enjoy a recipe more because it was hard – they only care if it tastes good!
- Prepare in advance/assemble: I mentioned this in my simple green salad post. Do yourself a favor and select some recipes that can be made in advance, or that can be simply “assembled” from store-bought items. Assembling an easy appetizer, salad or dessert will let you focus on the entree instead.
I hope these tips help! Do you have any that have worked well for you? I’d love to hear!
- 12 oz. cooked penne
- 1 large eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 large red onion, diced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Splash of sherry vinegar (about 1-2 tablespoons)
- 1 14 oz. can of tomato sauce
- About 5 basil leaves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2-3 cups shredded mozzarella
- Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Add eggplant to a baking dish and sprinkle with a pinch of salt; bake for 25 minutes.
- In the meantime, sautee the onion and a pinch of salt in the olive oil; cook over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring often to make sure the onions do not stick.
- Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and stir for about 2 minutes until the garlic is lightly browned; add the sherry vinegar, and stir for about one more minute.
- Add the tomato sauce, basil, salt and pepper. The tomato sauce I use already has some salt added to it, so add more salt if necessary. Add optional butter if you want a richer sauce.
- Once the eggplant is done, add it to the tomato sauce. Stir for about two more minutes.
- Combine the cooked pasta and the sauce; add to a large baking dish. Stir about ½ cup of cheese into the pasta, and then layer about 1-2 cups cheese over the top of the pasta.
- Bake for 20 minutes at 400 degrees, or until the cheese is bubbling and browning on the edges.
Note: recipe adapted from the cookbook Chez Panisse Vegetables.