This week we're cooking from Nikki’s cookbook, Meat on the Side!
I must say, I am pretty excited to have such talented ladies for friends. I mean, I get to brag about them and their books! And cook recipes from their books, too!
I mean, how many people get to say that?
As I looked through Nikki's beautifully curated recipes, I was immediately drawn to the Eggplant Pasta Bake with Fresh Mozzarella + Thyme Bread Crumbs.
I had just found marked-down eggplant at the store, and bought them hoping to be inspired to use them in a unique way. I wanted to make something other than my usual Indian or Mediterranean dishes.
So when I saw this recipe, I knew it was kismet! That’s’ right, kismet cooking!
I began reading the recipe to see what else was needed, and wouldn’t you know I had everything except the red peppers! Ugh, I hate when that happens.
But, it still felt like kismet because the first step was making the sauce. So even though I'd have to go out for red peppers later, the recipe made me happy because I would be able to get the eggplant part of the sauce ready and finish the rest the next day!
I began by roasting off the eggplants while we had dinner that night, so I was able to let them cool while we ate.
Then I scooped out the flesh and put it in the fridge for the next day. Also the next day, I went to the store and grabbed a jar of roasted red peppers, because…life is busy sometimes.
And I love that Nikki gives a note about being busy in the book—that it’s totally fine to save time with store-bought ingredients!
Once I had everything, I got back on track. I grabbed my eggplant out of the fridge and carried on to the next step of the recipe, adding everything for the sauce to the food processor.
I'm not going to lie, I may have sneaked a taste at this point and yum! I’m glad I did!
I loved the richness of the eggplant combined with the slightly smoky roasted red pepper—it was delicious!
The rest of the recipe was a piece of cake!
I keep extra/leftover bread from spaghetti nights at our house in the freezer, which made it easy to make the breadcrumbs.
I did warm/toast them in the oven for just a moment so they would grind easier in the food processor, but if your bread isn't frozen, that’s not necessary.
If you’ve read my other posts, you know that we eat vegan at home, so that made the mozzarella part of this recipe a little different for us.
There is a great vegan restaurant here in Louisville called Morel’s Café where, in addition to serving food, they sell various vegan food items to take home as well.
They happened to be out of mozzarella when I called, but I had some other vegan cheese at home that I was able to use as a substitute.
That's one of the things I love about vegan and plant-based cooking—there is always a fun way to substitute ingredients. And substituting is a great way to learn about food and to play with textures and flavors!
In the end, this made a wonderful vegan dish that was quick, easy, and a nice change from our normal pasta/spaghetti night.
Do yourself a favor—fall in love with veggies using this cookbook!
I also want to note that what I really liked about Nikki’s book besides the beautiful pictures that capture vegetables so vividly is the way she pairs foods together!
There are some great combinations in her book that I wouldn’t have thought of, but now that I see them, they make total sense and sound delicious!
I’ve obviously got more recipes to try! The veggies in our house just got a makeover thanks to Nikki!
Time to get Veggie-fide!
servings: makes 4 cups sauce
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 extra-large eggplants (about 3 pounds total)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- One 16-ounce can tomato sauce
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ½ cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, more to taste
- Use the broiler or gas burner on the stovetop to roast the peppers: Simply place them under or over the flame (use tongs if you’re working on the stovetop) and cook until they are mostly black on all sides—5 to 8 minutes, turning as needed. Place the peppers in a plastic food storage bag; seal the bag. When the peppers are cool, rub off the skins with a paper towel. Quarter the peppers lengthwise and then remove their stem and seeds.
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and place them cut-side-up on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with the oil. When the oven is hot, bake the eggplants until the sides are soft to the touch—25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack. When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, use a spoon to scrape the flesh into a food processor or blender; discard the skins.
- Add the tomato sauce, peppers, vinegar, basil, garlic, and salt to the food processor. Process until the sauce is smooth and well combined.
- Transfer the sauce to a medium saucepan and simmer over medium heat until the garlic is less pungent—5 to 7 minutes. Taste the sauce and add more salt if you wish. Cover and keep over low heat until ready to add to your recipe.
Notes from Nikki:
- Keep It Simple - Make this Eggplant Sauce ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze it until you need it (it will keep in the fridge up to 5 days, in the freezer up to 2 months). I use it in other recipes as well, so I store it in 1 or 2 cup quantities and then I’m set to go for a variety of uses.
- Family Friendly - Nervous about kids and EGGPLANT sauce? Make the introduction by serving it with the type of pasta your kids normally eat: elbows, penne, whatever they like works.
Eggplant Pasta Bake with Fresh Mozzarella + Thyme Bread Crumbs
- 1 pound shell pasta
- 3 cups homemade coarse bread crumbs (see Appendix, page 000)
- 1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
- 4 cups Eggplant Sauce, warmed
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente according to the package directions. While it cooks, mix the bread crumbs, thyme, and salt in a medium bowl; add the butter and toss until the crumbs are evenly coated.
- When the pasta is done, drain it and return it to the pot. Add the Eggplant Sauce, mozzarella, and cherry tomatoes, stirring until the cheese begins to melt and the tomatoes warm through (if the mixture isn’t hot enough to melt the cheese, put the pot over medium heat for a few minutes and keep stirring until it is).
- Turn on the broiler. Spoon the pasta mixture into a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture evenly over the top. Place under the broiler until the topping is crisp and slightly brown—3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
Notes from Nikki:
- Keep It Simple - I like the chunks of mozzarella swimming throughout the dish, but if you only have shredded mozzarella on hand you can use that by sprinkling it between the pasta and bread crumbs for a great cheesy layer.
- Make it Meaty - A great addition to this dish is cooked, crumbled sausage. I like to use a hot Italian sausage. Cook up the sausage in a skillet and place atop the pasta and then top everything with the bread crumbs and cook as instructed. You’ll need three 3- to 4-ounce sausage links for this recipe. Or make it 50/50 and just put the sausage on half!
- Family Friendly - The Eggplant Sauce is so smooth and it tastes just slightly different from tomato sauce, so this bake should go over as well as any pasta suppers you might normally serve. Using shredded mozzarella instead of fresh will ensure a very cheesy bite and an irresistibly looking plate of pasta for your young ones.