So, there’s been about thirty-seven new babies born in my life in the past few weeks. (Apparently, there was an plenty of holiday spirit going around last Christmas.) And I’ve been happily delivering meals to these new mamas and sneaking in some time to hold their tiny newborns, compared to whom, Owen now looks like baby rhinoceros.
I cautiously yelled out, “Hello?” as I lifted the gate latch.
I took one tentative step inside the fence, and there he came…what appeared to be a large white wolf came barreling around the corner of the apartment building, bounding towards me with great leaps, growling and barking as though I were a mailman mixed with a cat. (A Catman? A Mailcat?)
In an instant, me, my ill-fitting mary-janes, and a bag full of enchiladas were flying down the steps and into the street. The closing gate must have slowed down the beast, because as I Usain-Bolted out of the yard, I somehow stayed just in front of him.
Fortunately, there were three men standing across the street, watching this chase scene unfold, and I sprinted towards them out of instinct. Unfortunately, these men were Somali, and therefore of a culture which both vehemently hates and utterly fears dogs…which may explain why they just stood there, mouths agape, cups of chai suspended in mid-air, their eyes getting bigger and bigger as I, and a giant dog, ran ever closer to them.
As I reached the middle of the street (which thankfully for me, the enchiladas, and the dog was free of cars), I heard it…the voice of my friend’s older daughter, yelling, “SIMBA! COME BACK HERE!”
Without actually looking, I sensed the dog retreat back into the yard to be aptly scolded by the daughter. I eventually realized that I could stop running and slowly turned around, trying to play it cool as I apologized for creating a scene, all the while conscious of the fact that my armpits were drenched in sweat, but that thankfully everything else had remained dry.
After a few minutes of sniffing my open palm, the dog realized I wasn’t actually an assassin, and began trotting around the yard, sniffing the ground, like dogs do. Meanwhile, my friend’s daughter explained to me how I had stepped into the perfect storm of dog chases: Being new friends from church, they had thought I was a different Liz (thanks to the beauty of online meal signups), one who would have known to park my car in the back alley of their apartment building, where the hero daughter had been waiting with the dog the whole time, so as to avoid what had just happened. So she was as surprised as I was when the dog bounded towards the front of the apartment and heard me screaming like a little girl.
As I continued to get my breath back, I kept looking warily at the dog, whose head easily reached my rib cage, telling myself that he had just been doing his job…or that he was really really excited about enchiladas.
I got home and immediately regaled Eric with my story, arms flailing in wild gestures, as we devoured this cheesy pasta bake…which, in addition to a much-needed glass of Malbec, was just what I needed. Warm. Gooey. Filling. Cheesy. Comfort Food.
This meal is indeed comfort food. It’s perfect for the end of summer and the beginning of fall, where you haven’t quite turned your heat on yet, but it feels good to have the oven on for a while. This pasta bake makes great use of late-summer goodies like zucchini, peppers, and eggplant…which are all broiled into perfect tender-crisp bites, nestled into plenty of melted cheese. I love how broiling the veggies makes their flavor really stand out within the dish .This has just a little more flare than your standard lasagna, especially with the addition of your favorite cheese, and mine: feta. And bonus! You can make this and freeze it ahead of time…the perfect meal to have around for the next time you get chased by a collosal canine might need some comfort food.
(I originally copied this recipe from a friend's cookbook...but have no idea which cookbook. My apologies.)
(yields one 9x13" pan or two 8x8" pans)
This cheesy vegetable pasta bake makes good use of lots of late summer vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and peppers, I modified the original recipe by adding bell peppers and basil, as well as doubling the garlic and cheeses. While the original recipe using vegetables is great, I have also made it with sautéed chicken or Italian sausage. I like to put this recipe into two 8x8 pans, because it doesn’t take much more work, and then I can freeze one of the pans for a friend or a later day.
1/2 lb. dry ziti or penne pasta
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
3/4 tsp. salt, divided into 1/2 + 1/4 tsp.
1/4 c. olive oil, divided (1 tbsp. set aside)
2 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise
2 medium eggplants, halved or quartered lengthwise, depending on size
1/2 large yellow onion, quartered
1 large bell pepper, chopped & sauteed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp. fresh oregano, chopped or 1/2 tsp. dried
2 tbsp. fresh basil, chopped, or 1 tsp. dried
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 c. pasta sauce
3/4 c. feta, crumbled
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
4 c. (16 oz.) mozzarella, shredded
Optional: 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch pieces. OR
1 lb. ground sweet Italian sausage
Cook the pasta according to the package directions; drain, and set aside.
Whisk together the balsamic vinegar, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, and 1 tbsp. of the olive oil into a vinaigrette in a small bowl. Place the zucchini, eggplants, and onion on a baking sheet or broiling pan, and brush with the vinaigrette.
Heat broiler on high. Bril vegetables until fork tender (but not mushy!), about 8 minutes per side.
Chop the roasted vegetables and set aside.
*To saute the bell pepper, heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat, and saute the pepper for about 4 minutes, until tender crisp. Set aside.
*IF USING MEAT:
For the chicken: Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat, add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through. Season with just a pinch of salt and pepper. Drain and set aside.
For the Italian Sausage: Place in saute pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sausage is completely cooked through. Drain and set aside.
In a large pot, saute the garlic and remaining olive oil over low heat for 3 minutes or until garlic is golden in color. Add the drained pasta, roasted vegetables, sauteed bell peppers, oregano, basil, tomatoes, pasta sauce, feta, black pepper, red pepper flakes, remaining salt, and meat if using...stir to mix completely.
Transfer mixture to a GREASED 9x13" pan or two 8x8" pans. Preheat oven to 350*. Sprinkled with mozzarella. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 20 minutes more until the insides are bubbly and the cheese is slightly browned.
*To freeze the casserole, assemble it in a non-glass pan but DO NOT BAKE it. Cover tightly with 2 layers of aluminum foil.
To reheat: Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Cover and heat in a 350 oven for 30 mins. Uncover for 10-20 mins. more until heated through and slightly browned on top.