Southern Italy is deeply fond of eggplant. Throughout the country - but particularly around and south of Rome - it is fried, stuffed, layered and baked, smoked and pureed and preserved in oil. It is combined with pasta in delightfully diverse ways. In Sicily, pasta with eggplant is so essential that the name for the dish, Pasta Alla Norma, means "pasta in the normal way."
The eggplant may be cooked with only garlic and olive oil until it slowly dissolves into a nutty-tasting puree, or slices of eggplant might be fried before being heaped atop tomato-slicked tangles of pasta. It might be combined in a syrupy braise with sweet peppers or blended with potatoes and stuffed into ravioli.
Every summer, with some ambassadorial enthusiasm, I parade these variations through the kitchen in a show of eggplant's delicious versatility. A dish of bucatini cloaked in a chunky, bright-tasting eggplant-tomato sauce has emerged over the years as the favorite - even with my household's resident eggplant skeptic. It is a recipe I learned from chef Micol Negrin, founder of the Rustico Cooking school in New York, who featured the dish in her 2002 cookbook "Rustico," a celebratory tutorial of the cooking of each of Italy's 20 regions.
In that preparation from Calabria, the eggplant is sliced into thin strips and then cooked gently in a pan of garlic-infused olive oil until it collapses. Peeled and grated (or chopped) tomato is added to the pan with fresh oregano to reduce and thicken, and torn basil leaves are tossed in at the end. Once the pasta is ready, it is added to the sauce with a bit of the pasta cooking water.
What makes this sauce so compelling is the way it maximizes and concentrates the vegetables' most luxurious aspects - the eggplant's sweet, creamy flavors and the tomato's rich, fruity ones - into a seamless coalescence. It is a seductive rendering of peak summer produce, which, I like to argue, often benefits from more extensive cooking. The resulting sauce also coats the pasta beautifully, making it more pleasurable to serve and to eat.
If you make it, you'll see that Negrin's recipe calls for bucatini, a thick, spaghetti-like pasta that is hollow. Its sturdy frame stands up to the full-bodied sauce. The chef says it is the commercial version of maccheroni al ferretto - pasta made at home, shaped around a knitting needle. But other shapes also work well with this sauce, she says, particularly short types with ridges, nooks or crannies such as penne rigate, rigatoni and the "little ear"-shaped pasta called orecchiette.
As for the eggplant, choose vegetables with shiny, taut skin and firm stems. In Calabria, Negrin says, cooks typically use the large, globe-shaped, violet-hued varieties with thin skins, often called Sicilian eggplants in the United States and known as violetta di Firenze in Italy. If you can find them, or any other of the lavender, thin-skinned varieties, take them up - their fine-grained flesh is often sweeter and more tender than standard varieties. Alternately, suggests Negrin, opt for long, slender Asian eggplants: "Japanese or Chinese eggplants will work beautifully, even if their texture is somewhat softer: after all, the eggplant is crushed, and is not meant to remain in distinct pieces." If you use a variety with thicker skin, as tends to be the case with most darker-hued types, my preference is to remove it.
For the tomatoes, the variety is less important, although a deep red or black tomato makes for a more attractive sauce than a yellow one. Ultimately, if they are ripe and delicious, they will serve you well.
The olive oil, because its flavor is so central here, should be good quality and full-flavored (look for a harvest date on the bottle to verify freshness). Don't worry that cooking with it will null the point: The heat is not so high as to damage the principal flavors. Instead, any off-characteristics in a lesser oil will carry into the sauce.
Negrin calls for dusting the plated pasta with sharp, earthy pecorino Romano, but I also like to shower it with toasted bread crumbs, tossed lightly with olive oil and baked at 400 degrees until copper-colored and shatteringly crisp.
Either one sounds a grounding note of contrast in this sultry ode to summer.
Bucatini in Chunky Eggplant Sauce
Yield: 4 to 6 servings (makes about 1 2/3 cups sauce, enough for 1 pound of pasta)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 2 cloves garlic, chopped One 12-ounce eggplant (un peeled), cut into 1/4-inch by 1/4-inch by 3-inch strips 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon salt, as needed 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed 1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced 1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano, or more as needed 12 basil leaves, torn 1 pound dried bucatini (or sub stitute penne rigate, rigatoni or orecchiette) 1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese, for serving
Heat the oil in a wide, deep-sided saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook, 30 seconds, then add the eggplant, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Partially cover and cook for 25 minutes, stirring often, or until soft, allowing the liquid from the lid to drip into the eggplant if it seems dry.
Use a fork to crush the eggplant in the pan to a chunky consistency, then add the tomatoes and the teaspoon of fresh oregano. Increase the heat to medium; cook uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, until the sauce is thick (the cooking time will depend on how juicy your tomatoes are). Stir in the basil and keep the sauce warm.
Meanwhile, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the bucatini and the remaining 2 tablespoons of salt. Cook according to the package directions (al dente), about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Add the drained pasta to the sauce in the pan, and add just enough of the reserved pasta cooking water to create a sauce that coats the bucatini. Taste, and add more salt and/or pepper and oregano, as needed.
Serve hot, dusted with the cheese.
Notes: To peel the tomatoes, use a sharp knife to score a large X on the bottom of each one. Drop into a bowl of just-boiled water and let sit for a few minutes, until you see the peel curling back from the edges of the X. Drain and let cool, then peel and discard the loosened skin. ... For a dairy-free option, substitute freshly toasted bread crumbs - tossed with a little oil and baked at 400 degrees until golden brown - for the cheese. ... Bucatini, sometimes called perciatelli, is available at Italian markets and at some Safeway stores as well as online purveyors.
Nutrition information per serving (based on 6, using 1½ teaspoons salt): 410 calories, 13 g protein, 62 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 690 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar.
Source: Adapted from a recipe in "Rustico," by Micol Negrin.