This is an extravagant, hearty, baked vegetable pasta dish, a bit of a labour of love, but worth it. You’ll need quite a deep baking dish for it. Serves 8-10
600g large rigatoni
salt and pepper for seasoning
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed
500g melting cheese (you can use a mixture of mozzarella, fontina and taleggio) cut into 1cm cubes
200g Parmesan, freshly grated
1 quantity of spinach balls (recipe below)
2 large onions, peeled and finely diced
100ml olive oil
1.5kg tomato pulp or canned chopped tomatoes (I used 4 cans of peeled tomatoes)
10 basil leaves, shredded
2 eggplants, cut in 8mm thick slices lengthwise
3 medium zucchini, cut in 8mm thick slices lengthwise
plain flour, to dust
olive oil, for shallow-frying
1. Make the tomato sauce first by frying the onion in the olive oil until soft, about 5-6 minutes. Add the tomato and basil and cook gently for 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and set aside.
2.For the filling, dust the eggplant and zucchini slices with flour. Beat the eggs together, and dip the vegetable slices in this. Pour enough olive oil into a large pan to cover the base generously and heat gently. Shallow-fry the vegetable slices, a few at a time until golden, about 3-4 minutes on each side. Set both vegetables and oil aside. If you haven’t cooked them in advance, the spinach balls can also be cooked in this oil.
3.Meanwhile, boil the fennel bulbs in lightly salted water until al dente, about 6-7 minutes. Drain well, and cut into thin slices and set aside.
4. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente, about 5-6 minutes. Drain and mix with little of the sauce. Preheat the oven to 200ºC
500gspinach leaves, washed thoroughly, tough stalks removed
2 free-range eggs, beaten
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
50g grated parmesan
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Blanch the spinach leaves in a pan of salted, boiling water for 1-2 minutes, then drain well and refresh in cold water. Using your hands, squeeze out as much water from the blanched spinach leaves as possible, then finely chop the spinach. Transfer spinach to a bowl, then stir in the beaten eggs, nutmeg, breadcrumbs and parmesan. Season to taste. Mix well until the mixture binds together, adding more breadcrumbs or more water, as necessary, to bind the mixture. Roll the spinach mixture into walnut-sized balls and place onto a baking tray. Fry the balls in olive oil for a few minutes each side until golden brown all over and drain on paper towel. Set aside until assembly.
In a baking tray or dish, now assemble all the ingredients. First put a layer of pasta on the bottom on which you distribute slices of zucchini and eggplant, slices of fennel and a few spinach balls, then some pasta. Sprinkle over some of the cheese chunks, some of the tomato sauce and some of the grated Parmesan, and repeat. Build a few layers according to the size of the baking tray, and finish on top with tomato sauce, a few chunks of cheese, a few spinach balls, and the remaining Parmesan. Bake for 30-40 minutes in the preheated oven. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes before serving, cut in squares.