This is down-home, primal Sicilian cooking, using inexpensive and commonly available ingredients: olive oil, eggplant, tomato and pasta. A showering of grated ricotta salata and toasted bread crumbs adorns this humble yet justly famous dish.
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1small onion, diced
- Salt and pepper
- 2garlic cloves, peeled
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 12basil leaves, plus a few basil sprigs for garnish
- 4cups peeled, chopped tomatoes with juice, fresh or canned
- 3 or 4small eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1pound pasta, such as penne, rigatoncini or spaghetti
- 1cup coarsely grated ricotta salata
- ¼cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade
- Make a quick tomato sauce: Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in garlic, red pepper and basil leaves and cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, stir and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and let sauce simmer gently for 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside. (Sauce may be prepared up to two days in advance.)
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Turn heat to low and cover pot until it’s time to cook the pasta.
- Put a wide cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil to coat surface of pan. When oil is wavy, test by adding a cube of eggplant. It should begin to sizzle and brown immediately. Fill the pan with a single layer of eggplant cubes. Turn eggplant with a spatula or tongs and brown nicely on all sides. Lower heat as necessary to maintain an even temperature; if the pan is too hot, the eggplant will burn.
- Remove cooked eggplant to a plate and continue to fry remaining eggplant in batches, adding more oil as necessary. Season finished eggplant with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, roast the eggplant on a baking sheet at 400 degrees, lightly drizzled with oil, until cooked and nicely browned, about 20 minutes.)
- To assemble and serve, boil pasta until al dente, leaving it a little firmer than normal. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer. Add eggplant to sauce and gently stir to combine. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water, then drain pasta and add to sauce. Using 2 wooden spoons or tongs, toss pasta and sauce, and let cook 1 minute more. Thin sauce if necessary with a little pasta cooking water.
- Transfer to a warmed wide pasta bowl. Sprinkle with grated ricotta salata and bread crumbs. Garnish with torn or whole basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.