Eggplant and mint are a classic Sicilian combination. Both are plentiful and at their best in summer, which is the best time to make this brightly flavored dish, adapted from my book The Glorious Pasta of Italy (Chronicle Books 2011). Cavatappi are short, ridged corkscrew-shaped pasta. If you can't find them, substitute another short, sturdy pasta shape, such as rigatoni or even farfalle (bowties).
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 young eggplant (12 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 1/2 pounds plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and grated* or 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 to 2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
1 pound cavatappi or farfalle or other short, sturdy pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously.
While the water is heating, put the olive oil, onion and garlic in a large frying pan. Place over medium heat and cook for about 7 minutes, or until the onion is softened but not browned. Stir in the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it begins to soften and turn golden. Pour in the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until the tomatoes have thickened into a sauce. Sprinkle the mint and balsamic vinegar over the sauce, stir, and simmer for 5 minutes more.
Add the pasta to the boiling water, stir to separate, and cook according to the manufacturer's instructions until al dente. Reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink.
Transfer the pasta to the frying pan and gently toss the pasta and sauce to combine thoroughly, adding a splash or two of cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Transfer the dressed pasta to a warmed serving bowl or to warmed individual shallow bowls and sprinkle the cheese on top, if you like. Serve immediately.
*Peeling and grating tomatoes is my favorite way to prepare them for sauce. It works beautifully and produces a lovely fine pulp that requires no additional milling. I prefer it to blanching, peeling and chopping the tomatoes, which I find is just as laborious and can make the tomatoes mushy. Here's how to do it: Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with your fingers (I do this over the sink). Place a box grater on a cutting board with a moat to catch the tomato juice as you grate. Hold the cut side of a tomato flat against the large holes of the grater and grate the tomato, pressing it gently, until only the skin is left in your palm. Continue until you have grated all the tomato halves. As you work, transfer the pulp to a glass or stainless-steel bowl to prevent too much from accumulating on the cutting board.