Even on the cusp of October, our New York farmers’ markets still offer piles of eggplants of considerable diversity: tiny finger-shaped or spherical ivory or ivory-purple ones; the elongated “Japanese” variety; and of course the traditional deep-colored bulbous kind that make Jackie and me want to go home and eat eggplant parmigiana. Or, retaining the Italian focus, pasta alla Norma.
Or maybe even something new in the pasta line: a delicious twist on tradition with an unexpected creamy texture quite different from the chunky consistency I tend to think of with eggplant-pasta dishes. The eggplants are cooked in a two-step sequence: blistered over a gas flame (or under the broiler) to generate a smoky flavor, then finished in the oven to soften the flesh, which is then pureed. The recipe also uses ripe tomatoes in a way that takes advantage of both their flavor and their juiciness: the tomato is peeled, cut up and salted, which draws out the juice. Then, the solids (still very moist) are cooked into the eggplant puree, while the juice is stirred in at the end to loosen the sauce and add a hint of bright freshness.
We ate it with short tubular pasta: it is nice to find the hollow pasta filled with sauce, so smallish shells would be good too. And we finished it at the table with grated pecorino; parmesan would be okay too, and so would the ricotta salata that is used in traditional pasta alla Norma. If you’re only two at the dinner table or if you’re dining alone, please make the full recipe: You’ll want more of this sauce; apart from dressing another round of pasta, it is a sautéed chicken’s dream come true.
You ought to make the sauce a couple of hours in advance.
- 1 large ripe tomato or a couple of smaller ones (about 1 lb total)
- 1 fairly large eggplant or two smaller ones (about 1 lb total)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced thin
- 1/3 Cup of your favorite olives, pitted and roughly chopped
- A handful of fresh basil (or mint) leaves, roughly torn or chopped
- Grated pecorino cheese (parmesan or ricotta salata are good substitutes)
- 4 portions dried pasta – a short tubular or shell-like shape
Heat the oven to 375º F (for the eggplant) and bring a small saucepan of water to the boil (for the tomato).
While the oven is heating, peel the tomato or tomatoes by cutting an X into the skin at the end opposite the stem, plunging it into boiling water for 15 seconds, and removing it to your work surface (or a bowl of ice water if you don’t like to handle hot tomatoes). The skin will come off easily. Now chop the tomato fairly fine, scoop it into a bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or 1/2 teaspoon fine salt). Set aside.
Over a medium gas flame or under the broiler, cook the eggplant until the skin smells mildly smoky and is blistered and slightly charred, about 6 or 7 minutes, turning to ensure that all sides are touched by the fire. (This will take a minute or two less time for smaller eggplants.) Remove the stem, cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place the halves cut-side down on a baking sheet slicked with olive oil (optionally lined with parchment paper for easier cleanup); place in the oven and roast until the flesh is very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes (but check after 10 minutes).
When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, use your fingers to ease the flesh into the container of a food processor or blender. Let some fragments of charred skin fall in too; they’ll add flavor. Puree until very smooth. (Unless you are the proprietor of a particularly prissy three-star restaurant, don’t worry about the eggplant seeds.)
The chopped tomatoes will by now have exuded much juice; place them, juice and all, into a strainer set over a bowl, and press lightly to squeeze additional moisture out of the tomatoes.
In a shallow saucepan or chef’s pan (saucier) warm 2 Tablespoons olive oil over low heat; add the sliced garlic and cook, stirring as needed, until the garlic is tender (test with the point of a knife) and is just beginning to turn golden. This could take 3 minutes or twice that long, depending on heat.
Add the eggplant puree, raise the heat to medium and stir until the eggplant is thoroughly combined with the garlic/oil: no puddles of oil should be visible. Stir in the drained tomatoes (do not discard the juice), then the chopped olives. Add salt to create a well rounded flavor. Start with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt or 1/4 of fine salt; you will have several opportunities to adjust seasoning. Throw in a few leaves of basil or mint for the sake of their perfume.
At this point you can leave the sauce aside, covered, until dinner time.
When you add your pasta to the usual boiling salted water, reheat the eggplant mixture over medium heat, stirring frequently (I use a rubber spatula). When it is hot, stir in half of the reserved tomato juices and taste for seasoning. I did not feel the dish needed pepper; you may disagree.
When the pasta is 95 per cent done, drain it well and add it to the sauce. Just for luck, save a little of the cooking water (you probably won’t need it). Cook the pasta and sauce together for 20 or 30 seconds, stirring constantly; add as much of the remaining tomato juices as needed to achieve a fluid but creamy consistency. The stirring will drive some of the sauce into the pasta’s hollows. A Add basil or mint and serve in warm bowls with grated cheese available at the table.