Published July 1, 2009.
Meaty eggplant meets bold tomato sauce for a satisfying weeknight meal, Sicilian-style—but the tale turns tragic if it’s dense and greasy.
Even a classic dish like this faces pitfalls. The eggplant is a big production to prepare, usually requiring salting before frying, and often ends up soggy and slick with oil. The tomatoes tend to coagulate into a heavy, overwhelming sauce, or they’re so few they don’t form an adequate foundation. And the flavors in the dish can easily drown out the subtle essence of the eggplant.
We wanted a bold, complex pasta with rich tomato and eggplant flavors and smooth, silky texture—without an excessive amount of work.
We first salted cubes of globe eggplant—which we liked for its tender yet resilient texture—and then zapped the salted cubes in the microwave for 10 minutes. The salt drew out moisture that microwaving turned into steam, all the while causing the eggplant to collapse and compress its air pockets. The collapsed air pockets, in turn, soaked up less oil in the pan. Much faster than traditional salting, the eggplant pieces came out of the microwave quite dry (a good start for browning) and microwaving shrank the cubes to a size that could handily be cooked in just one batch in a 12-inch skillet. We then sautéed the eggplant, browning it and adding rich flavor.
For the sauce, we used canned crushed tomatoes for their thick consistency and seasoned it with a lot of garlic. A small amount of red pepper flakes added a suggestion of heat, a generous dose of chopped basil brought freshness, and a bit of extra-virgin olive oil stirred in at the end with the basil gave the sauce rich, round, fruity notes. We also used a surprise ingredient—anchovies—which imparted a deep, savory flavor without any trace of fishiness. To bring the eggplant and sauce together, after browning the eggplant, we set it aside, made the sauce in the same skillet, and then added the eggplant to the sauce and simmered them together only long enough to heat through. This allowed the eggplant’s caramelization to shine without compromising its tender texture. Since the eggplant had a tendency to soak up tomato juices, causing the sauce to become rather thick, we added a little reserved pasta cooking water when tossing the sauce with the pasta. Before serving, we sprinkled ricotta salata, a salted, slightly aged ricotta that is traditional in pasta all Norma, over the dish.list of recipes