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Eggplant & Smoked Mozzarella Ziti (Guest Blogger Event)

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This post is from Nicole of Yum Yum Pittsburgh! Check out her site for more recipes and everything food! 

When I was younger, we would occasionally attend huge “sort of family” gatherings. By “sort of family,” I mean that the women who hosted these large gatherings were related to my mom through marriage (Aunt B married mom's Uncle R) or by simply being a friend (my mom's best friend from high school [Aunt D], who also happened to be Aunt B's sister). Sound kind of complicated & confusing? It is. My maternal grandma was one of 13 children, and between marriages and divorces and re-marriages and step kids and adopted kids, well it gets crazy.

The point is, at these large gatherings, there were always a few staples. A huge tub of fried chicken. Cookies and more cookies. Giant sandwiches. Vats of pasta and potato salads. And huge trays of ziti.

When I think of Pittsburgh family reunions, weddings, summer picnics, high school graduations, church confirmations, bridal and baby showers, almost all the ones I experienced growing up were with Aunt B and Aunt D and their families. And there was always ziti, with and without sausage, and definitely with cheese.

Sometimes, ziti and red sauce needs a slight overhaul to freshen it up, make it more appetizing. More of an overhaul than just adding sweet or spicy sausage. Ever since SP bought me Cover & Bake, I have had my eye on the Baked Ziti with Eggplant & Smoked Mozzarella. A few weeks ago, we finally made it.

It's simple to make, though it does take a bit of time. The eggplant is diced, salted, and drained for 30 minutes. The pasta needs to cook (undercook it a bit since it will cook more when the casserole bakes). For the sauce, the eggplant is browned and then combined with the tomatoes and other ingredients. 

This was delicious! The smoked mozzarella flavor nicely complemented the eggplant. Just enough sauce & splash of pasta water to keep the pasta from drying out. Enough cheese to satisfy cheese lovers but not so much as to make it too heavy & rich. We'll definitely make this again. Next time, we'll add some sausage along with the eggplant. And hopefully next time, we'll have lots of fresh basil, which we didn't use this time. We used dried and it added basil flavor, but fresh would have been much tastier.

Baked Ziti with Eggplant and Smoked Mozzarella From Cover & Bake

2 lbs globe eggplant, cut into ¾ inch cubes

kosher salt 1 lb ziti (or another short, tubular pasta) 4  tbsp olive oil 4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press ½ tsp red pepper flakes 1 (28-oz can) crushed tomatoes 2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves 8 oz smoked mozzarella cheese, shredded 1 oz parmesan cheese, grated (about ½ c)

*we omitted the garlic because of my sensitivity; we used dried basil; we omitted the red pepper flakes but SP sprinkled some on his servings

Toss the eggplant with 1 tbsp kosher salt and place in a colander to drain, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400 degrees and cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to package directions (until al dente). Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and toss the pasta with 1 tbsp of the olive oil.Spread the salted eggplant over a double layer of paper towels and pat dry, wiping off any extra salt. Heat the remaining 3 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet, add the eggplant, and cook until the eggplant begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender & lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and simmer until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the basil. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste.Add the tomato sauce and reserved pasta cooking water to the pasta and stir to combine. Pour half of the pasta mixture into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the mozzarella and half of the parmesan. Add the rest of the pasta mixture and sprinkle with the remaining cheeses. Cover with foil and bake until the cheese melts, about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the cheese begins to brown, about 5 minutes more.

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