Baked Pasta with Pork Ragu and Eggplant

Baked Pasta with Pork Ragu and Eggplant

My grandmother Vincenza would make this delicious baked ziti dish for special family occasions.  The ziti is combined with a tomato sauce ragú made with pork, currants, and pine nuts and then layered with slices of fried eggplant.  It’s a great dish you can make ahead of time and heat before serving.  I’m planning a large wine tasting dinner next month and I’ll be serving this pasta dish for that very reason.  And you can serve a large group of 16 people by doubling the ingredients and baking it in a large lasagna or roasting pan.

BAKED PASTA WITH PORK RAGÚ AND EGGPLANT
(Pasta al Forno con Ragú di Maiale e Melanzane)

Difficulty Rating: Medium
Makes 8 servings.

INGREDIENTS
For the Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 (2 pound) pork tenderloin or shoulder roast, cut into 1/2-inch by 1-inch cubes
1 cup diced pancetta (about 3 ounces)
1/2 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 3/4 cups crushed tomatoes (14 ounces)
1/2 cup dry white wine or water
4 tablespoons currants (optional)
2 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
2 to 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 sprig fresh basil
salt and pepper

For the Pasta:
2 large eggplants (about 2 -2 1/2 pounds)
1 pound ziti or rigatoni pasta
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1/3 cup dry plain breadcrumbs
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
Olive oil for frying
Salt

MAKE THE SAUCE:  Heat the olive oil in a 6-quart pot or Dutch oven over high heat.  Working in batches, brown the pork and pancetta.  Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl.

Add the onion to the meat drippings and cook for about 4 minutes, until soft.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer.

Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds.

Add the remaining ingredients and 1 1/2 cups water.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to simmer, cover with lid, and cook for 30 minutes.  Season with sugar, salt, and pepper.  Continue cooking for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender.  Add water, as necessary, to thin out the sauce while cooking.  Discard the basil after cooking.

FRY THE EGGPLANT:  While the sauce is cooking, slice the eggplant into 1/4-inch thick slices.  Combine 10 cups water with 2 1/2 tablespoons of salt in a large bowl.

Add eggplant slices and cover with a plate to completely submerge the eggplant slices.  Let sit for 1 hour.  Heat a 1/4-inch layer of olive oil in a large skillet.  Drain the eggplant and pat dry with a dish towel.  Working in batches, brown the eggplant slices on both sides.  Season with salt while cooking.

COOK THE PASTA:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter a 9-inch by 13-inch casserole dish with butter and coat with bread crumbs.  Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Add pasta and cook until not quite al dente.  Drain the pasta in a colander and place under cool running tap water for a minute or two to stop further cooking.  Drain well, place pasta in a large bowl and combine with the sauce.

ASSEMBLE THE PASTA DISH:  Spoon one-third of the pasta onto the bottom of the baking dish, and sprinkle with one-third of the cheese.

Place half of the eggplant slices in an even layer on top.

Cover with half of the remaining pasta and cheese.  Layer remaining eggplant on top.  Spoon remaining pasta on top and sprinkle with remaining cheese.  Place in the oven and bake for 25 minutes.

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