Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pasta Bellini

I think that eggplant is something you either love or hate. The texture is a little weird and can easily turn people off to it, and I totally get that. Don't get me started on the things that I hate simply because of the texture. (Mayo, bananas, pudding, tomato juice...)

I've been seeing a bunch of white and purple eggplants all over my local farmers' market lately, so had been thinking about what I would do with them once I finally got around to buying some. I checked out the Recipes for Health column in The New York Times and considered making some baba ganoush (and I probably still will), but saw a tomato-eggplant pasta recipe that sounded perfect for a chilly fall weekend.

After I read through the recipe a few times, it felt familiar. I finally realized that it was essentially a version of Pasta alla Norma, one of my favorite pasta dishes, probably because I remember eating it in an outdoor cafe in Sicily, which is WAY better than eating it in my tiny apartment, with the scent of my neighbor's cigarette smoking wafting through the window. (Random fact: It is supposedly named after Bellini's opera, Norma.) I had never tried making it...until now. And I'm glad I did!

This recipe calls for a cooked tomato sauce as one of the components. I did actually make my own sauce, mostly because I like to make a bunch and then freeze the leftovers, but I guess you could buy a jarred sauce instead, but ONLY if you recognize all of the ingredients and there is no added sugar. Also, if you are good at improvising, you could make a quick sauce on the fly. I recommend the recipe the way I've written it simply because it was SO GOOD. Guess I know what I'll be eating for lunch tomorrow...

Pasta alla Norma
(adapted from Martha Rose Shulman)

1 pound small eggplants (white and/or purple)
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose tomato sauce*(see note below)
3/4 to 1 pound dried pasta (penne or rigatoni)
Fresh basil, optional
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino (or Parmesan, ricotta salata is traditional)

1. If you are working with small eggplants, not more than 3 inches long, trim the ends and cut them into 1/2-inch thick wedges. If the eggplants are bigger than that, cut them in half, and then into 3-inch wedges. Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt, then allow to sit for 30 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels.

2. Heat a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once it is hot and begins to shimmer, add the eggplant. Cook, stirring often, until the edges are nicely browned, about 10-12 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and tomato sauce and stir together. Cover, turn the heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes more. Remove from the heat, and keep warm.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, firm to the bite, following the package instructions for exact cooking times. Stir 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water into the eggplant and tomato mixture, until fully incorporated. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Drain the pasta, and toss with the tomato sauce and eggplant mixture. Stir in the fresh basil if using. Serve, passing the cheese for sprinkling on top if desired. Serves four to six.

*Note: You can either follow the recipe below for the tomato sauce, or substitute a high quality jarred sauce. Alternatively, after the eggplant has been cooked in step 2, remove it to a plate and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, one small onion, chopped, and 2 minced garlic cloves to the skillet. Cook for 3 minutes and then add 1 (14-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes more. Add the eggplant back into the skillet with the tomato sauce and continue with the rest of the recipe starting with the rest of step 2, adding the red pepper flakes and cooking 10 more minutes.

All-Purpose Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh Basil, chopped, optional

1. Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add the onions and cook until they are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, cook for 30 seconds, and then add the chopped tomatoes with their juice. Stir in the salt. Bring to a simmer and the reduce the heat the medium-low and continue to cook, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Stir occasionally.

2. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Remove the pot from the heat. If desired, use an immersion blender to puree the sauce. Stir in fresh chopped fresh basil if desired. Makes about 4 cups.


spinney said...

Eggplant is one food that I've only liked when someone ELSE cooked it. Also wilted spinach. But I think it's all the restaurant butter in the spinach that worked for me. Not sure about the eggplant... mine is always bitter.

Jennifer said...

I've always wanted to try a recipe with eggplants but always felt it was tricky. I'm going to give this a whirl but with jarred tomato sauce (Note is duly noted). I can't go too crazy at once.

Tina said...

I know what you mean about eggplant sometimes being bitter, SP. This recipe had absolutely no bitterness and I wonder if that is a combo of salting the eggplant first to remove the excess water, and then cooking with younger, smaller eggplants. I've read that the larger the eggplant and seeds, the more bitter.

stef m said...

You're more generous than I am -- I believe there is NO EXCUSE For jarred sauce! A simple sauce is so easy and tasty and no sauce in a jar can compete.