Recipe: Baked Rigatoni with Eggplant and Sausage

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Photo by Gio_JL/FlickrCC

This dish is inspired by Tyler Florence's sausage rigatoni from his book, Tyler's Ultimate. I know what you're thinking: "You want me to eat fake sausage?" But it's actually not bad, especially Lightlife's "Gimme Lean" meatless sausage, which even comes in a roll as if you'd picked it up at the butcher shop.

It's true that vegetarian food that tries to be like meat will never be as good as the real thing, as is the case with nearly all approximations. But this particular mock-meat gets pretty close, especially because it has to be cooked like actual sausage, allowing its flavors to mingle with those of surrounding ingredients. Besides, it keeps a lot longer than real sausage, is cheaper, and is significantly healthier (ahem).

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

• extra-virgin olive oil
    • 3/4 pound meatless ground sausage, preferably Lightlife, cut into 1-inch pieces
    • 1 large eggplant, also cut into 1-inch pieces
    • 1 large onion, chopped
    • 1 28-ounce can peeled, crushed tomatoes
    • 1 tablespoon fennel pollen or ground fennel seeds
    • leaves of 1 bunch of basil
    • 1 pound rigatoni
    • 1 pound mozzarella, broken into several pieces
    • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Place a large, covered pot of salted water over heat to bring to a boil while making the sauce. Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the "sausage" and toss for two to three minutes, until lightly browned. Put the sausage aside.

Add a third of a cup olive oil to the skillet, turning the heat down to medium. Add as much eggplant as fits on the bottom layer of the skillet and sprinkle with salt. Cook, turning, for about seven minutes, until crisp. Remove the eggplant from the skillet and replace with another layer of uncooked eggplant, repeating until all the eggplant is cooked.

Add to the skillet two tablespoons of oil as well as the onion and garlic. Cook for three or four minutes, until translucent. Add the tomatoes, including any sauce in the can, with the basil and fennel. Cook for about 15 minutes, until reduced to a thick sauce.

Once the pot of water is boiling, add the rigatoni and cook for six or seven minutes. Drain the pasta, saving half a cup water for later use.

In a large bowl, mix the sausage, eggplant, pasta, sauce, half of the mozzarella pieces, and the half cup water, tossing to combine. Transfer to a 9-by-13 inch baking dish. Place the rest of mozzarella on top of the mixture. Sprinkle the Parmigiano and drizzle about one tablespoon olive oil over the top. Bake for 25 minutes.