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Baked Penne with Lamb, Eggplant and Fontina

Too many baked pasta dishes turn out dry because the sauce lacks a creamy, binding consistency. This recipe answers that dilemma by dressing the pasta generously in béchamel sauce before layering with eggplant and a savory lamb ragù. The fontina cheese melts and forms a golden crust on top.

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggplant, each about 1 lb., peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 2 Tbs. fine sea salt, plus more, to taste    
  • 5 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary or 1 tsp. crumbled dried rosemary
  • 3 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 1/2 cup dry red or white wine
  • 3 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh or canned plum tomatoes, with juices
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium beef broth

For the béchamel sauce:

  • 2 1/4 cups milk
  • 4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 3 Tbs. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
  •  
  • 1/4 lb. fontina cheese, shredded
  • 2 Tbs. kosher salt 
  • 3/4 lb. penne

Directions:

Place the eggplant in a colander in the sink and toss with the 2 Tbs. sea salt. Top with a flat plate, then with a heavy can and let drain for about 40 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Preheat an oven to 400ºF. In a large bowl, stir together the eggplant and 2 Tbs. of the olive oil, then divide between 2 rimmed baking sheets. Roast until the eggplant is soft and nicely colored, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with sea salt and set aside. Leave the oven on.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the remaining 3 Tbs. olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, rosemary and parsley and sauté until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the lamb and sauté, stirring to break up any clumps, until nicely colored on the outside but still a little pink on the inside, about 12 minutes. Drain off the excess fat from the pan and return the pan to medium heat. Add the wine and simmer until evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, tomatoes and their juices, and season with sea salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour, adding the broth as needed to prevent the sauce from drying out. Remove from the heat.

While the sauce is cooking, make the béchamel sauce: In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk until small bubbles appear around the edges of the pan, then remove from the heat. Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to remove any lumps and cook, stirring continuously, until aromatic but not brown, about 2 minutes. Let cool for 3 to 4 minutes.

Return the pan with the flour to low heat and slowly drizzle in the warm milk, whisking constantly. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil, whisking constantly and making sure to reach the bottom and sides of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the nutmeg and sea salt and simmer gently, whisking often, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in all but 3 Tbs. of the cheese. Cover and set aside.

In a large pot over high heat, bring 4 quarts water to a rapid boil. Check the pasta package directions for the cooking time. Add the kosher salt and pasta to the boiling water, stir and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is half-cooked. Drain and rinse, then return the pasta to the pot. Add the béchamel, stir to coat evenly and set aside.

Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Smear about one-third of the lamb sauce over the bottom of the dish, and layer with half of the pasta and half of the eggplant. Top with half of the remaining sauce. Layer with the remaining pasta and eggplant, and top with the remaining sauce. Scatter the reserved cheese over the top. Cover the dish with aluminum foil, place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until the surface is nicely colored and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma The Pasta Book, by Julia della Croce (Weldon Owen, 2010).