We just finished reading On the Noodle Road, by Jen Lin-Liu — a great read, by the way, but not the point of this post — and, she, not surprisingly, spoke about various pasta dishes and how they were prepared, and that they were so delicious she could clearly remember and describe them months, perhaps even years, later, when she wrote the book. Frankly, it made us hungry for pasta.
Homemade pasta, of course, but something a little different. Looking through the refrigerator and pantry, we finally decided on Eggplant Cannelloni. Just to change it up a bit, we’d make a basil oil to drizzle over the top after it came out of the oven. This dish also had the advantage that we could prep it all in advance and just pop it into the oven when we got home. Sound good? Good, let’s scratch up these cannelloni!
There’s a number of things going on here, so we’ll hit some of the highlights. How do you make just half a batch of pasta dough? You don’t. Make a full batch and use about half. Have the other half tomorrow as fettuccine. That’s what we did. Bread crumbs? You have been saving those when you cut into your freshly baked loaves, right? If not, just tear a piece of bread into pieces, toast it in the oven until dry, then crush it. Egg? Free range is best. Note that we do specify San Marzano tomatoes; we use Cento brand. They’re good tomatoes — widely available, too — and good tomatoes make a difference. Finally, You will never see Parmesan cheese in a shaker can in Italy, so don’t let it into your house, either.
Procedure in detail:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a small baking dish. We used a small Pyrex “refrigerator” box that’s about 9×7 inches, and has a glass lid. It worked perfectly, but use what you have.
Heat oil. Pour some olive oil into a large skillet and place over medium heat. When hot (we sometimes test by dropping in a single piece of onion to see if it sizzles), add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 4 minutes.
Add carrots. Now stir in the grated carrots and cook, stirring often so the carrots won’t stick, about 5 minutes. The carrots are there to add a bit of sweetness to the finished filling.
Add eggplant and mushrooms. Toss in the eggplant cubes and mushrooms. Eggplant is notorious for soaking up oil, so, if you need to add a bit more oil to keep everything from sticking, feel free. Cook until eggplant and mushrooms are cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Add spices. Now stir in the salt, pepper, and oregano. We add these at the end, mainly so we can taste and adjust without having to worry about the saltiness increasing as any liquid evaporates.
Add binders. Remove from heat. Let the eggplant filling cool (we did this part one day and finished the next), and, when cool, add the egg and bread crumbs, which will help bind the filling together. Stir thoroughly to combine. Set aside.
Drain tomatoes. Place the tomatoes in a colander over a large bowl and split them open, allowing the juice to drain away. Let the tomatoes drain for about 10 to 15 minutes, so you have tomatoes and tomato pieces left. Save the tomato juice for another dish (we made a cooked pizza sauce).
Crush tomatoes. Using your fingers, crush about three-quarters of the tomatoes into small pieces and line the bottom of the baking dish with crushed tomatoes. We recommend using your fingers because you’ll be able to feel the tough tomato cores that should be removed.
Roll cannelloni. Roll out the pasta dough as thin as you can into a long sheet about 4 inches wide. Cut the sheet into 12-inch lengths, and place filling down the center of each sheet. Roll the pasta up to form a tube.
Cut to length. Using a serrated knife, cut each of these 12-inch tubes into four equal-length pieces, and transfer to the baking dish. Continue rolling and filling until you have a single layer of cannelloni.
Top. Crush the remaining tomatoes to distribute across the top of the cannelloni, then sprinkle with a bit of Parmesan cheese.
Bake. Slide into the oven and bake, covered, for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until everything is nice and bubbly and the cheese is melted. If you wish, you can remove the cover for the last 15 minutes of baking to allow the cheese to brown. Meanwhile, make the basil oil.
Blanch basil. This really isn’t necessary, but it will keep the basil looking nice and green, instead of turning purplish-black. Place the basil leaves in a colander in the sink and pour several cups of boiling water over the leaves. We just boiled up about 4 cups in the teakettle. Once all the leaves are wilted, immediately start running cold water over the basil to stop any cooking and to set the color. Once completely cool, squeeze dry.
Blend. Place basil leaves, oil, and salt in the bowl of a food processor (or blender), and pulse and run until well-blended. We did this in our food processor, which didn’t do that good of a job, because we had such a small amount. If we had a blender, we would have used it, instead.
Serve. Once the cannelloni are baked, place on a plate and drizzle with the basil oil.
We put these together right before some late afternoon-early evening errands, set the dish in the fridge, and baked it all up when we returned around 7. It might have been that we were really hungry, but these were fantastic. Even today, when we’re are writing this, we still think they were fantastic. The garlic mellowed enough during the frying and baking so it didn’t have that harsh garlicky taste, the carrots added just the slightest hint of sweetness — not so much that you’d notice it, but enough to cut any acidity in the tomatoes and bitterness of the eggplant. And, of course, using fresh pasta will move any meal up to the gourmet level — we always say if there’s one thing a cook could do to make his or her meals much better, it’s to make his or her own pasta. Five stars.