Recipe: Paccheri with Eggplant, Capers, Mint, and Ricotta Salata
I don’t often cook eggplant in winter. It’s usually withered and seedy, and it just makes me long for summer, when I can find ten different eggplant varieties at my Greenmarket. Eggplant is a strikingly beautiful vegetable. I can’t get over its varying shades of purple, from inky black to light lavender, or when it really looks like eggs, solid white, or bright green with white stripes, or electric purple with beige stripes. It is rich, creamy, and absolutely delicious, and as every Sicilian knows, it makes a luxurious pasta sauce. But in the dead of winter? Usually not.
Here I was at my musty neighborhood health food store, buying more goji juice for my mother. (She still demands it even though the last bottle I bought gave her a dramatic case of the runs. Maybe that was the desired effect.) So I picked up her juice, and before heading out (I can’t spent much time in health food stores—that rancid grain smell depresses me) I glanced at their organic produce department, which in winter doesn’t usually look much better than my local supermarket’s. I saw something interesting: smooth, firm purple-black eggplants, not too big, but hefty. Where do these come from, I asked? Nobody knew. That’s odd. I though all these employees were supposed to be organic food experts. It didn’t matter. I bought a couple.
When I got them home and cut into them, I wasn’t disappointed. Nice, very few seeds, no brown liquid beading up, a vegetable-sweet smell. I was excited. Pasta time. I had a bag of paccheri, the Neapolitan pasta that look like ultra-huge rigatoni. These tubes are so gigantic they look like Italians are playing a joke on gullible American foodies, but they’re the real thing. (I usually buy the Neapolitan brand Setaro at Buonitalia, at the Chelsea market.) You might be tempted to stuff these big tubes, and you could, but their true charm emerges when you cook them until just floppy and sauce them with something substantial and decidedly Southern, such as eggplant. I’ve gone all-out Sicilian here (despite the choice of a Neapolitan pasta shape), with anchovies, capers, fresh chili, mint, Marsala, pine nuts, and ricotta salata.
This pasta is so substantial and meaty, I like eating it as a main course, followed by a green salad.
Note: I don’t salt eggplant. I’ve found it makes no difference whatever in controlling bitterness. If you choose firm, young eggplants, bitterness will be less of a problem.
Paccheri with Eggplant, Capers, Mint, and Ricotta Salata
(Serves 4 as a main course)
2 medium-size firm eggplants, peeled in vertical stripes with half the skin left on, and cut into small cubes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 fresh chili, seeded and minced (I used a red jalapeño)
1 shallot, cut into small dice
2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, chopped
¼ cup dry Marsala
1 28-ounce and 1 15-ounce can of San Marzano plum tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
1 pound paccheri or rigatoni pasta
A handful of salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked for about 20 minutes and then rinsed
A handful of lightly toasted pine nuts
A handful of fresh mint leaves
A chunk of ricotta salata
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the eggplant, seasoning with salt and the sugar (this will help it brown), and sauté until lightly browned. Scatter the chili, garlic, shallot, and anchovy bits over the eggplant, and stir it around. Sauté until the seasonings are soft and fragrant, about a minute longer. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a minute. Add the tomatoes, with their juice, and cook uncovered at a lively bubble for about 8 minutes. Add the capers and the pine nuts.
Cook the paccheri in abundant salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving about a half cup of the cooking water.
Place the paccheri in a serving bowl, and drizzle it with a tablespoon or so of fresh olive oil. Add the mint, and give it a toss. Add the eggplant sauce, and toss lightly again. Add a little pasta water if needed. Serve right away, grating ricotta salata over each serving.