Sunday, 7 October 2012

Eggplant and Chicken Macaroni Gratin

I have been mildly obsessed with baked pasta dishes lately. Maybe because fall is right around the corner, which generally means my appetite for comfort food increases dramatically. What can I say, I do not like cold (you gotta wonder why I still live in a country where it snows from October to April) and I make up for the miserable weather with awesome food.

This recipe was inspired by an improvised pasta dish my mother whipped up the last time I went to see her. Her version was good, but I reworked it to satisfy my carnivorous boyfriend's cravings, and make it into a sort of alla Norma twist on a classic mac-and-cheese.

I had a beautiful fresh eggplant from my father's garden (the eggplant was sooo cute and chubby, I felt kinda guilty chopping it), my basil plant was offering me gorgeous, huge green leaves and I had a ton of fresh local garlic in the pantry. This gratin is my farewell to summer, and acceptance of fall, season of ankle boots, chunky scarves and leather jackets.

1 eggplant, cut into small cubes
1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
Olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 to 4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon dry oregano
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 package dry macaroni
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup mozzarella, grated

Place the eggplant cubes in a colander, sprinkle with salt and toss well. Sweat the eggplant for 30 minutes to an hour, then rinse under cold water and drain well. While the eggplant sweats, preheat a pan over medium heat. Cook the chicken cubes in a glug of olive oil, until tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside. Drain the cooking fat from the pan, add more olive oil and put back on the heat. Cook the onion and garlic, until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add the eggplant, oregano and chili flakes. Fry up the eggplant cubes, tossing well until the are lightly browned on all sides.

Pour in the diced tomatoes and give the sauce a good stir. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat. Simmer the sauce, covered, for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to the package instruction, until almost al dente, and drain. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the basil, chicken, ricotta and macaroni.

Mix well and transfer to the baking dish. Cover generously with the mozzarella.

Bake in the oven until heated through, and until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Vegetarians can replace the chicken with a zucchini, chopped in half-moons, to keep the "late summer at the farmer's market" spirit of the recipe. Add them to the pan along with the eggplant, and proceed with the recipe.

This recipe makes a very tasty, creamy pasta casserole. The chicken is very tender, the eggplant gives a satisfying bite and the sauce is zesty and rich: it makes a filling and healthy substitute for the usual mac and cheese. It also makes a ton, so bring the leftovers with you for lunch! A nice helping of these will make the yellowing leaves and the migrating geese a bit less melancholy.

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