I am a born-again eggplant believer. This past month, I’ve been going eggplant crazy. Turn me on. Thanks to it being in season, but also the re-discovery of the Grandma secret of sweating and draining the eggplant before cooking, I’ve rekindled a deep Italian love. My favorite recipe for eggplant is the following eggplant and tomato based sauce with ricotta salata and rigatoni pasta. The combination of the drained and then sauteed eggplant, with the sweet tomatoes and garlic, paired with the spongey and salty texture of the ricotta salata and fresh rigatoni pasta is the Garden of Eden in a bowl. Mine, mine, mine, woo!
The keys to this eggplant rigatoni pasta
One of the secrets to this amazing pasta dish is perfectly sweated and drained eggplant. If you do not take the time to salt and then let the eggplant slices rid themselves of their extra moisture and bitterness, you’ll be left with a watery pasta sauce and too much bitter taste – a no, no, no. By saying goodbye to the extra water content, you are able to properly sauté the eggplant in olive oil, so they develop a nice crunchy and complex texture, before tossing them into the pasta sauce. Suggestions and how I like to drain and sweat my eggplant are found here.
Another secret to this rigatoni is, bring it in closer, anchovies. These little devils are either loved or hated. I have friends that will run to the hills if they know anchovies are in a dish. Unbeknownst to them fools, many great Italian dishes incorporate anchovies, which simply disappear into the sauce but leave behind a mysterious and delicious layer of flavor.
In my book, no non-seafood pasta dish is complete without some type of cheese. The kings of grated cheese are no doubt pamigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano. But if you are in the know, depending on dish, you can switch up the cheeses to introduce different flavors and textures to a pasta, such as shredded asiago, taleggio, ricotta, grana padano, and fontina to name a few. For this pasta, ricotta salatais the perfect choice and is what truly transforms the pasta from good to stratospheric. Ricotta salata is a little understood cheese, which is a shame, so listen up. It is sheep’s milk curd that is pressed and dried for three months. It is slightly salty, with gorgeous notes of nuttiness and sweetness. Its texture is slightly firm and slightly spongey and definitely a delight.
Rigatoni w/ eggplant, tomato sauce w/ ricotta salata
Ingredients for the eggplant rigatoni:
- 1 red onion, diced
- 6 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 2 eggplants, sweated and drained, then cubed into 1 inch pieces
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 4 filets of anchovies
- 3 fresh tomatoes, cubed and cored – we only want to the tomato flesh and no pulp/seeds
- Handful of basil, chiffonade
- 1 pound of fresh rigatoni (not dried, if possible)
- Crumbled ricotta salata
First, in a hot pan with olive oil, saute the eggplant. Don’t be scared to get mean. We want the eggplant to brown and develop a sexy texture. This will take at least five to ten minutes. Be mindful not to burn the eggplant cubes, but do get aggressive. When the eggplant is browned and sauted, place them aside.
Prepare the tomato sauce by first melting the anchovy filets with the red pepper flakes in olive oil over medium heat. When the anchovies have merged with the oil, add the onions and garlic and saute. Fragrances of beauty should perfume your house (and hair). After the onions become translucent, add the cubed tomato pieces, salt (to draw out tomato juices), and turn the heat to low. Allow the tomatoes cubes to slowly open up and exude their liquids to create the pasta sauce. This will take approximately 30 minutes over low heat.
When the tomato sauce starts to look extra delicious, toss back in the eggplant cubes and half of the basil. Allow these ingredients to all marry together over low heat. In the meantime, start your pasta by bringing up to a boil water. Once it reaches its bubbling point, throw in plenty of salt and the fresh rigatoni. The pasta should not take long to cook and we want them al-dente. So keep checking. Start taking some of the starchy pasta water and add to the eggplant & tomato sauce, but do not make the sauce too thin.
Throw the rigatoni directly into the pasta sauce when al-dente. Toss everyone so the sauce and rigatoni are perfectly incorporated. Add the remainder of the basil and the co-star, the ricotta salata. The heat of the pasta will gently warm through this slightly firm, slightly spongey cheese. Serve this amazing eggplant pasta immediately.