Rosa bianca eggplants at the Union Square Greenmarket.
Recipe: Rigatoni with Eggplant, Walnuts, and Cinnamon Tomato Sauce
If I lived in Sicily, I know exactly what I’d do for a living. I’d open a trattoria in Ortigia, the gorgeous heart of old Siracusa, where I’d serve eclectic but still recognizably Sicilian cooking, and spend long evenings drinking Nero d’Avola and smoking cigars with the liveliest old men of the town. What glamor. What a life. This would solve all my problems. I could cook eggplant every night, and they’d still love me. I’d call it Trattoria Di Menna, from my original family name, my name before my grandfather started messing with it.
A piazza in Ortigia, Sicily.
Rosa bianca, a cute, round, violet eggplant, Italian in origin of course, is something I’ve been finding at the Union Square Greenmarket this summer. It’s strictly Italian in spirit, being both gorgeous and prickly. The fist-size vegetable has spikes sticking up from its stem, invisible to the eye but needle sharp when you grab one. Once you pull those off, you’re left with a creamy, white-fleshed eggplant, with no bitterness, that when cooked melts like a Sicilian dream (just like my trattoria).
For the Sicilian restaurant dish I cooked up the other night, not in Trattoria Di Menna but in my hot little New York kitchen, I made up a version of the classic Sicilian trio of eggplant, tomato, and pasta, pretty much the Sicilian national dish. A cook can take various approaches to this trilogy. The quickest is to sauté chopped eggplant and then add tomatoes and whatever flavorings you like, making an all-in-one sauce. This is good and quick, but I sometimes like to separate the elements, leaving the tomato sauce pure and draping fried eggplant slices over the top. Very attractive, I think. You can also layer the fried eggplant into the dish and then bake it, a bit much for high summer but really elegant and delicious and worth the effort on a not-so-sweltering night. Ricotta salata is the classic Sicilian cheese used in eggplant pasta, and I couldn’t find an excuse not to employ it here (Ragusano is also an excellent choice). I did get a little fancy with the walnuts and cinnamon, but these are also flavors in the classic Sicilian culinary repertoire, so I wasn’t far out at all to add them. (The aroma of this pasta would be familiar to any Sicilian grandpa.)
If, like me, you can’t get enough eggplant, you’ll be happy to own a copy of Giulano Bugialli’s Foods of Sicily & Sardinia, a big Rizzoli photo book from 1996, filled with good, classic recipes for this beautiful vegetable, including several for pasta, a great eggplant risotto, eggplant fritters, and a chicken with eggplant that I especially love. Whatever happened to this guy? I wonder if he wants to help me open a trattoria in Ortigia? (Actually I’ve heard he’s a little prickly, just like my pretty little Rosa bianca eggplants.)
Rigatoni with Eggplant, Walnuts, and Cinnamon Tomato Sauce
5 round summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced (if you can find only supermarket garlic, use half the amount)
A few drops of balsamic vinegar
1 pound rigatoni
4 or 5 small round eggplants, cut into ¼-inch-thick rounds
½ cup all-purpose flour
A pinch of semi-hot paprika, such as the Basque piment d’espelette
A handful of very fresh walnut halves, lightly toasted
A handful of basil leaves, very lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
A chunk of ricotta salata
Summer tomatoes are often very juicy and can produce a watery sauce if you don’t drain them before cooking, but you’ve got to judge for yourself what you’re dealing with to decide if draining is needed. If your tomatoes are watery, put them in a colander, sprinkle a little salt over them, give them a toss, and let them drain over a bowl for about an hour. (Keep the tomato water, just in case you might need to loosen your sauce later on. You never know; you can overdo it with this draining.)
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and a generous pinch of cinnamon, and let sizzle for a few seconds. Then add the tomatoes, seasoning them with a bit more salt. Cook the tomatoes at a lively bubble for about 5 minutes. They should let off some juice. Turn off the heat and add a few drops of balsamic vinegar, a generous amount of black pepper, and the butter, giving the sauce a gentle stir.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
Pour about ¼ inch of olive oil into a large skillet, and get it hot over medium-high heat. On a medium-size plate, mix the flour together with another generous pinch of cinnamon, the hot paprika, and salt. Dredge the eggplant slices in the seasoned flour. Brown them well on one side, and then give them a flip, and brown the other side. Take the eggplant from the oil with a slotted spatula, and let it drain on paper towels.
When the rigatoni is al dente, drain it, saving a bit of the cooking water, and place it in a large, wide serving bowl. Drizzle with some fresh olive oil, and toss quickly. Pour on the tomato sauce, and add the walnuts and the basil. Toss gently (if the pasta seems dry add a bit of the cooking water or some reserved tomato water). Lay the eggplant slices over the top. Grate on some ricotta salata, and garnish with basil sprigs. Serve hot.