Pasta al forno with a of my childhood favorites

 Pasta al forno alla siciliana

Pasta al forno alla siciliana

There are dishes from my childhood that in my mind are associated with very specific events or people. One of these dishes is pasta al forno alla siciliana (essentially, Sicilian baked ziti), which my zia Lina used to make for us whenever we would go visit. She knows it’s my favorite and to this day she still makes it for me. While in Itay this summer, in fact, we spent a few days at the beach with her and my uncle and the day we arrived, she had the pasta waiting for me!

I make what, I hope, is a pretty decent version of it. I like to serve it when I’m having a lot of people over because it’s easy to prepare in large quantities and it’s a definite crowd pleaser. You could, however, just as easily make it for a smaller crowd as well.

Here’s what you need for 1 tray, which will serve about 6 - 8 people:

-       6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

-       2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

-       1 ½ cans (28-ounce size) chopped tomatoes (I also like the pomì in the carton)

-       salt, to taste

-       2 medium to large eggplant

-       1 can pitted, large black olives, pre-sliced (if you want to save time, otherwise whole and then you slice to your liking)

-       1 ½ pomi

-       2 bags shredded mozzarella (part-skim or whole milk)

-       1 ½ pounds of pasta – I like to use fusilli, but any kind of penne or ziti would be fine

Place a large pot of salted water to boil.

Then you make the sauce. In a saucepan, sauteé one of the finely chopped cloves of garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Add the chopped tomatoes, salt to taste and stir. Bring to a boil and then lower heat. Let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In the meantime, prep the eggplant by cutting around the soft center with the seeds. You will not be using this part. Take the strips of outer eggplant that have about ½ inch or so of pulp left on them and cut them into small cubes. Sauteè the remaining finely chopped clove of garlic in 4 tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Then add the cubed eggplant and salt. Sauteè while stirring often, until eggplant is soft and lightly golden. Set aside.

Cook the pasta in the now boiling water. Leave the pasta slightly undercooked, about 1-2 minutes less than directed on the box. Drain the water and put pasta back in the pot. Add the majority of the sauce, the sautéed eggplant, the drained can of olives and 1 ½ bags of the mozzarella to the pasta and mix together well. Place the pasta in a baking pan (I sometimes use the disposable ½ roaster size). Spread the remaining sauce on top and then evenly sprinkle the remaining ½ bag of mozzarella. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Then take the aluminum foil off and let broil for a few minutes to lightly brown the top.

This is a delicious and relatively easy to prepare dish that will have your family and friends coming back for seconds.  Enjoy!