serves: 3 quarts of sauce
The aim in this recipe is to soften the eggplant so much that it almost melts into the tomatoes-which explains the traditional name for this sauce, Melanzana Affogate: literally, "Suffocated Eggplant." The eggplant does not disappear though, either in flavor or texture, I assure you. If you love eggplant as much as I do, you will want to make this sauce-and plenty of it.
5 pounds ripe plum tomatoes
3½ pounds firm eggplants
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups onions, finely chopped
¼ cup garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon dried peperoncino, or to taste
4 sprigs fresh basil with leaves
Prepare the tomatoes for sauce.
Trim and peel the eggplants. Cut them lengthwise in 3/4-inch wide slices, stack the slices and cut them into 3/4-inch wide strips, then chop into 3/4-inch chunks.
Stir together the oil, the onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt in the saucepan. Cook for 5 or 6 minutes, add the garlic and let it caramelize it in a hot spot, then stir in a couple tablespoons of water and cook the onions and garlic together for a minute or two.
Now pour the eggplant pieces into the pan, sprinkle on 1 teaspoon salt, and turn to coat the pieces with the oil and sautéed onion and garlic. Cook over low-medium heat, uncovered, stirring and turning the eggplant frequently. If the pan gets dry and the pieces start to brown, stir in several spoons of water; lower the heat if needed.
Cook for 12 to 15 minutes or until the eggplant chunks are very soft, almost mushy, but still retain their shape. Pour in the prepared tomatoes and juices, rinse the tomato bowl with 2 or 3 cups water and pour it into the pan (the eggplant needs the additional liquid). Sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, the peperoncino and stir to blend everything together. Submerge the basil branches in the sauce, cover the pan and raise the heat to medium.
When the sauce reaches the boil, lower the heat to keep an active simmer and cook, covered, for 40 minutes or so. The eggplant should now be broken down and melting into the tomatoes.
Uncover the pan and let the sauce bubble gently and gradually reduce. Stir carefully as it thickens, to make sure the eggplant doesn't stick to the pan bottom, lower the heat if necessary. Cook uncovered for a total of 45 minutes to an hour, until the sauce has the consistency you like, and then turn off the heat. Pull out the basil before using, and store in the refrigerator for about a week, or in the freezer, in a properly filled and sealed container, through the winter.