Someone taught my baby to say “stop it.” Life with a seventeen-month-old is undignified enough, I feel, without irate admonitions issuing from the tiny person over every little thing. Like when I try to change her diaper (“Stop it!”). Like when I take a ballpoint pen away (“Stop it!). Like when I insist that her carseat straps be buckled for travel (“No no no no STOP IT!”).
Imagine how she feels, though. She’s the baby in a family of five. We tell her to stop every time she innocently tries to tear a page from a book, or color on the table, or suck on the bottom of a delectable shoe. We may both be saying the same words, but there are days when we’re not exactly speaking the same language. Luckily, I can’t ever get down about it, because at the first sign of sadness this same baby rushes across the room, arms outstretched, yelling “Hug! Hug!” Hopefully she learned that from us, too.
At times like these, comfort food is occasionally in order for the whole family. And is there any comfort food that compares to baked pasta? I guess roasted vegetables, maybe, so I’ve combined the two here to hedge my bets. The children can pick out the cheesy pasta parts and I can console myself with all the eggplant that’s left in pan.There are a few secrets to this dish. The first is that everything must taste good alone to taste good together, so season your vegetables well and cook your pasta in salted water. The next secret is that some fresh mozzarella cheese tastes like rubber and some fresh mozzarella cheese tastes like the Italian countryside. Purchase the latter. If in doubt, look for the words “buffalo mozzarella” and buy that. Finally, keep in mind that everything will continue cooking in the oven, so drain the pasta while it is still al dente.
Baked Pasta with Roasted Vegetables and Fresh Mozzarella: Chop a pound of eggplant into 3/4″ cubes. Slice a pound of cherry tomatoes in half. Toss separately with olive oil and a few pinches of salt and roast on separate trays in the oven at 350 for an hour, until soft and delicious. (I like to place all the cherry tomatoes cut-side-up to retain their juices, but that might be too persnickety for you.)
Chop a red onion and a red pepper and cook over high heat on the stove with a few pinches of salt until soft and browned, then add 2 cloves chopped garlic and cook another minute. Meanwhile, cook ¾ lb. short pasta in salted water until al dente and drain. When all the vegetables are ready, stir them all together with the pasta and a few big handfuls of finely grated Parmesan and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Oil a 9×13 baking dish and spread half the pasta mixture over the bottom, then nestle cubes of mozzarella in and over the pasta. Top with the remaining pasta and another layer of mozzarella cubes (I used 12 oz. mozzarella in all). Bake at 350 until cheese has melted and begins to brown. Shower the dish with freshly-sliced threads of basil and allow to sit a few moments before serving.