Olive Oil Roasted Baby Eggplant w/ Red Pepper Salsa & Ricotta Cheese

I love fresh vegetarian dishes.  Last weekend, I went to the international grocery store, where I get most of my not so easy to find Lebanese ingredients.  I found the most beautiful baby eggplant that are often used in Lebanese cuisine, whether stuffed, fried, or roasted, and made into some wonderful dishes.  This time, I decided to make them into a lighter dish, something that can be part of a Mediterranean lunch or brunch … or even a side dish.

OLIVE OIL ROASTED BABY EGGPLANT WITH RED PEPPER SALSA AND RICOTTA CHEESE

10 baby Eggplant
3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 teaspoon Salt
15 oz whole milk Ricotta Cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

SALSA
2 Red Bell Peppers – fire or oven roasted
1/2 cup Cilantro – finely chopped
2 tablespoons Garlic – finely minced
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Lemon – zested
Pinch Salt
Few fresh Black Pepper grinds

Begin by washing and drying the baby eggplant, red peppers, cilantro, and lemon.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the red peppers on a baking sheet and into the oven for 35 to 40 minutes.  While the peppers are roasting in the oven, start working on the eggplant.

On a clean cutting board, cut the eggplant in half lengthwise, and place them in a large bowl.  (I remove part of the eggplant stem that might burn in the oven.  See pic above.)  Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Mix well.  Place the oiled eggplant cut side down on a baking sheet.

If the red peppers are done roasting, remove them, and place them in a bowl.  Cover them with plastic wrap for 10 minutes to keep the steam inside the bowl.  This will help remove the peel instantly.

Bring the oven temperature down to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and place the eggplant in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes.

Finely chop the cilantro and finely mince the garlic.  Place them in a small bowl with the zest of one lemon, a pinch of salt and pepper, and 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil.  Remove the plastic wrap from covering the red peppers.  Peel and deseed the peppers.  Slice them into cubes, and place them into the bowl.  Stir the salsa to combine all the ingredients.

In another bowl, add the Ricotta cheese, and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.

When the baby eggplant slices are out of the oven, serve them in small plates or in one large serving plate.  If you choose to serve them into individual sides, as I did, then place a few baby eggplant in one small dish.  Make a quenelle, or football shaped dollop, out of a large spoonful of Ricotta cheese, and place it in between the eggplant slices.  Drizzle one or two small spoonfuls of the red pepper salsa over the eggplant slices.  With the assertively zesty and fresh flavor of the salsa, the mild flavor and creaminess of the Ricotta works well to bring balance to this delicious side dish.

 


Ricotta & Pecorino Romano Stuffed Pasta Shells

Pasta dishes can be very easy and simple to make, yet cooking the pasta to al dente is not such an easy task for most.  Al dente, which means ‘to the tooth’ in Italian, is where the pasta is cooked through, but still retains some resistance or chewiness in the center.  Make sure to have enough boiling salted water, in which the pasta can cook and swim freely.  If the water is not salted enough (like sea water), the pasta will be bland and flavorless.  Also, wet or fresh pasta cooks at a much faster rate than dried pasta.  And certain sauces go with different pastas, depending on their shapes and sizes … but that is for another post.

I found these very pretty imported and bronze cut pasta shells at a specialty store a few weekends ago.  I decided to use them for a stuffed shell dish.  Since I had some Ricotta cheese and many tomatoes to use, I made a stuffing out of the Ricotta cheese and a few other ingredients, and a very fast and simple sauce out of the tomatoes.  I then put the sauce on top of the shells, and topped them with a generous amount of one of my favorite cheeses, Pecorino Romano.  Into the oven, and then on the table.  My family loved this dish!  I hope you enjoy it as well.

RICOTTA AND PECORINO ROMANO STUFFED PASTA SHELLS

17.6 oz (1 bag) bronze cut Pasta Shells or any kind you prefer
2 tablespoons organic Butter
2 large Shallots
2 large Garlic cloves
30 oz whole milk Ricotta Cheese
2 cups grated Pecorino Romano** – filling
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
2 cups grated Percorino Romano** – topping
Basil to garnish

**When using Pecorino Romano, please be careful not to over salt your food, as this cheese is very salty on its own.**

THE SAUCE

2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 small yellow Onion
2 large Garlic cloves
8 ripe Tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh Basil – chopped
1 tablespoon fresh Oregano – chopped
2 teaspoons Salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
1 tablespoon Sugar

Begin by finely chopping the shallots and garlic.  In a sauté pan on medium low heat, sauté the shallots and garlic in butter.  Once they are caramelized, take them off the heat, and allow them to cool.

In a large bowl, add the ricotta cheese, 2 cups of the grated Pecorino Romano, the cooled shallots and garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper.  Stir to combine, then taste to make sure the seasoning is right.  Leave the stuffing to the side, while you cook the pasta and make the sauce.

In a very large pot of boiling salted water, add the pasta, and immediately stir to keep the shells from sticking together.  Closely monitor the pasta, as the cooking time depends on its dryness and thickness.  Do not cook the pasta to al dente.  The shells need to be undercooked by a few minutes,  as they will finish cooking in the oven.  You do not want mushy pasta.  When the shells are a bit undercooked, drain them from the pasta liquid, and set them to the side.  Make sure to reserve some pasta water, in case the sauce is too thick.

Roughly chop the onion, garlic, tomatoes, basil, and oregano.  In a pot on medium heat, begin sautéing the onions and garlic in olive oil.  After about 5 minutes, add the tomatoes, oregano, basil, salt, and freshly ground pepper.  Allow the tomatoes to cook down for about 10 to 15 minutes.  Add the sugar, stir, and then cook for another few minutes.  Taste the sauce, to make sure the seasoning is right.  Place the sauce in a blender, and purée it until it is very smooth.

ASSEMBLING THE PASTA SHELLS

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Ladle a couple of scoops of the puréed sauce into an oven safe casserole dish.  This will keep the pasta from sticking to the dish.  You can use a small spoon, a small plastic bag, or a pastry bag to stuff the shells with the Ricotta filling.  Place each stuffed shell in the casserole dish, until it is full.  Ladle the rest of the sauce over the shells, and place them in the oven for 30 minutes.  Take the shells out of the oven, and top them with the last 2 cups of the Pecorino Romano.  Grind some black pepper on top of the cheese, and place the shells back in the oven for about 15 minutes, until the cheese has melted and is golden brown.  Remove from the oven and serve with some fresh basil leaves.  Enjoy!