Monday, October 29, 2018

Baked Rigatoni alla Norma (with Roasted Red Peppers…)

We had an early hard freeze this year.  In most years I can count on being able to get tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and other late season vegetables until the end of October…and sometimes even into the first few days of November.  But this year, a freeze early in the month put an end to the growing season for these crops.  So a couple of weeks ago when growers brought the last of these favorites into the market, I bought all that I thought I could reasonably use up in the foreseeable future. 

Saturday I decided that their moment was truly over.  I had one large eggplant, a couple of poblanos and two large red bell peppers left.  I roasted all the peppers.  I packaged the poblanos and stuck them in the freezer.  The roasted bells that remained and the eggplant seemed like they had great potential for saucing some pasta for dinner that night.    

I have been thinking about Pasta alla Norma for a while now.   For those unfamiliar with this classic Sicilian pasta—it is a simple, but intensely flavored, pasta sauce of fried eggplant in tomato sauce.  It is typically seasoned with basil and finished with ricotta salata. I have been thinking about it because it seems like recipes for it have been crossing my path with some regularity in recent weeks.  Joshua McFadden has a sausage enhanced variation in his Six Seasons (which is a recent addition to my cookbook library.)   There have been others, but the one in the October issue of Bon Appétit—a baked riff on alla Norma, served burnished and bubbling in a cast iron skillet—looked particularly beguiling.

So, I decided to take advantage of the contents of my pantry and make my own variation.  I followed Bon Appétit’s lead and baked the sauced pasta in the same cast iron I used to fry the eggplant.  Since I seem to recall seeing several recipes that included capers, I decided to add some of those.  And if Joshua McFadden can add sausage to the classic, then I can certainly add some roasted red peppers.  My fresh basil succumbed to a fungus a while back (and would have died during our recent hard freeze, in any case), so I added a shower of dried oregano.  And since I love baked pastas filled with pockets of fresh ricotta, I substituted fresh ricotta for the salted and drained version.

In ordinary years I would have made my tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes from the market, but I used up the last ones in a sauce of some kind over a week ago (and didn’t get around to freezing any this year…).  Fortunately, I had just this week stocked my pantry with canned San Marzano style tomatoes.  So I used a can of those to make a basic sauce.  If you have a favorite sauce you like to make, you should feel free to use it—you will need 2 cups. 

Before I finish, I want to comment about my method for the eggplant.  In general I am not a fan of pre-salting eggplant.  Pre-salting is used as a way to draw out the juices from the eggplant that tend to become bitter as the eggplant sits in storage.  Since I mostly use fresh, peak season eggplant, I usually don’t find it necessary to salt it ahead.  But for the eggplant I wanted to use in my pasta—that had been hanging out in my produce bin for at least two weeks—I decided salting ahead would be a good idea.  Since pre-salting has the additional benefit of making the eggplant flesh less prone to absorbing oil, I was able to use a bit less oil for the frying.  If you use recently harvested eggplant that doesn’t need pre-salting, you might need to add a touch more oil during the frying process. 

I honestly had no intention of posting this recipe…I really just wanted to be a good steward of the produce so carefully grown by our local growers.  But it turned out to be fantastic—one of those baked pastas that you have to force yourself to remove from the table so you won’t continue to nibble away at it until you’ve eaten way more than your fill.  I just had to share it.  Not only was it delicious right out of the oven, it reheated beautifully to make a very satisfying lunch the next day (with a fresh drizzle of oil…and a sprinkling of more pecorino or parmesan).  Sadly—since I’m all out of peppers and eggplant—I won’t be able to make it again this year.  But perhaps you still have some peppers and eggplant in your pantry…in which case, you really should make this.  As for me, when the season for eggplant and peppers arrives again…this pasta bake will be at the top of my list.    

Baked Rigatoni alla Norma

1 large globe eggplant (about 500 to 550 g.)
Kosher salt
2 large red bell peppers (about 400 to 450 g.)
6 T. olive oil, divided
4 to 5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 t. hot pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)
2 t. dried oregano
2 T. capers, drained and rinsed
3/4 lb. rigatoni (or other short sturdy pasta)
200 g. whole milk ricotta
2 oz. (2/3 c.) finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino…or a mix of the two

Preheat the broiler to high.

Top and tail the eggplant.  Slice the eggplant cross-wise into 1/2-inch thick rounds.  Cut the rounds in half.  Cut the halves into 1/2-inch wide sticks.  In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with a slightly mounded teaspoon of kosher salt.  Transfer the eggplant to a colander and let drain for a half hour. 

While the eggplant drains, roast the peppers.  Rub the peppers with a thin film of oil and place on a small baking sheet.  Run the peppers under the broiler, turning them as they char until they are charred and blistered all over.  Remove from under the broiler and set aside to cool.  Place the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°. 

When cool enough to handle, peel and seed the peppers (working over a sieve set over a bowl so that you can capture any juices released by the peppers).  Discard the skin and seeds and cut the flesh of the peppers into 1/2-inch wide strips.  Cut the strips in half so that the pepper strips will be similar in length to the eggplant pieces.  Add the pepper strips to any pepper juicers and set aside

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce.  Place a medium sauté over moderate heat.  Add a quarter cup of olive oil to the pan along with the garlic and pepper flakes.  Cook until the garlic is sizzling and just beginning to acquire a faint golden tinge.  Add the tomatoes (that have been pulsed in the food processor or run through a food mill fitted with the largest disc).  Bring to a simmer.  Add the oregano.  Simmer until the sauce is thickened and reduced to 2 cups.  This will take about 20 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

When the eggplant has been sitting for half an hour, quickly rinse under a spray of running water.  Shake the colander to get rid of the excess water and transfer the eggplant to a double thickness of kitchen towels.  Place another double thickness of kitchen towels over the eggplant and press and scrunch to absorb the water and dry off the eggplant.

Place a large cast iron skillet over medium high to high heat.  Add 2 T. of olive oil.  When the olive oil is shimmering, add the eggplant, spreading it out into a snug single layer.  Cook, turning the eggplant pieces occasionally and regulating the heat to prevent scorching (while maintaining an active sizzle) until the eggplant is golden and tender to the tip of a knife.  This will take about 20 to 30 minutes (you will probably need to reduce the heat to medium after about 10 minutes of cooking).  When the eggplant is tender, add the tomato sauce, capers, and the peppers along with their liquid to the pan.  Bring to a simmer before reducing the heat to the lowest setting to keep the sauce warm and allow the flavors to blend while you cook the pasta.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.  Add the rigatoni and cook for five minutes. It will still be quite al dente.  Drain, reserving a small amount of the pasta water.  Transfer the pasta to a large bowl—or return it to the pot.  Add the sauce to the bowl/pot (scraping the skillet well with a heatproof rubber spatula) and fold the sauce and pasta together.  If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of pasta water.  (I didn’t find this necessary, but it is conceivable that you might if your tomato sauce is very thick.)  Transfer half of the pasta and sauce back to the cast iron skillet and dollop evenly with half of the ricotta.  

Scatter half of the Parmesan/Pecorino over all.  

Repeat this layering with the remaining pasta and sauce, ricotta and Parmesan/Pecorino. 

Place the skillet in a preheated 375° oven and bake until the ricotta is tinged with golden brown—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Serves 4 to 6.

  • My large cast iron skillet measures 11 1/4-inches across the top (it is slightly flared, so it would have a slightly smaller diameter at the bottom).  It holds 3 quarts.  If you don’t have a cast iron skillet that is about this size, you can of course use any heavy oven proof skillet that has the same capacity.  You can also mix up the pasta and sauce and then layer it into an oiled 3-quart casserole (13- by 9-inch or equivalent).  Bake as directed in the recipe.
  • You can make the roasted red peppers and tomato sauce ahead.  In a pinch you could use a good quality prepared tomato sauce.  You can also use your favorite homemade sauce.  You will need 2 cups.  I have never found a processed/jarred roasted pepper that I thought was worth eating.
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