This is a delicious Sicilian pasta dish, and as I discovered in Palermo, while researching Lidia’s Italy, found on just about every restaurant menu there. In Sicily they fry the eggplant cubes before they add them to the pasta, but here I instruct you to bake the eggplant—it is just as good, but with much less fat. I am asked for this recipe over and over again—my viewers seem to love eggplant, as well as ricotta, and this dish is the perfect marriage of the two.
To keep both the eggplants and the ricotta intact, add the little ‘pockets’ of ricotta and the eggplant pieces just before serving the pasta or turning it into the baking dish. It is one of nuances in cooking that make a difference. When you take a bite of the finished pasta, you’ll get little bursts of different tastes, which you wouldn’t enjoy if the eggplant pieces were broken apart and the ricotta was mixed in with the pasta.
If you choose to bake the pasta, make sure the pasta is well moistened when it goes into the baking dish—the heat of the oven will dry it out a little. You can toss little pieces of mozzarella or Fontina cheese in with the finished pasta if you like. Just make sure the consistency of the pasta stays fluid and creamy.
- 2 large firm eggplants (each about 3-inches in diameter and 1 ¼ pounds)
- 2 tablespoons coarse salt, plus more salt for cooking the pasta and seasoning the sauce
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- One 28 oz canned Italian plum tomatoes with their liquid (preferably San Marzano) plus more if needed
- 1 pound ziti
- 1 cup freshly grated Grana Padano Cheese
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves, washed, dried and shredded
- 1/2 pound (1 cup) fresh ricotta cheese or packaged whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 8 ounces imported Fontina cheese, sliced thin (if baking the pasta)
Trim the stems from the eggplants. Remove strips of peel about 1-inch wide from the eggplants, leaving about half the peel intact. Cut the eggplant into1-inch cubes. Toss in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons coarse salt. Dump into a colander and let drain for 1 hour. Rinse the eggplant under cool running water, drain thoroughly and pat dry.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush a baking sheet with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Turn the eggplant cubes onto the baking sheet, toss to coat with oil and spread them out in an even layer. Bake until the eggplant is very tender and browned, about 25 minutes. Turn and stir the eggplant cubes gently once or twice during bake so they cook evenly.
Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat.
Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Scatter the garlic over the oil and cook, shaking the pan, until golden, about 3 minutes. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, add the pepper flakes, and season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to simmering and simmer for 10 minutes.
Stir the ziti into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, about 10 minutes.
Drain the pasta and return it to the pot over low heat. Pour in all but about ¼ cup of the sauce, toss lightly to coat the pasta with sauce. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in ¾ cup of the Grana Padano and basil. Gently stir in the eggplant. Add the ricotta by heaping teaspoonfuls, stirring it gently into the pasta; you want the ricotta to heat but you do not want it to blend with the sauce completely.
Either serve the pasta as is—right from the pot—sprinkled with the remaining ¼ cup grated cheese, or gently slide it into a 13 x 11-inch baking dish. Arrange the Fontina slices overlapping to cover the top of the pasta. Spoon the reserved sauce over the Fontina and sprinkle the top of the baking dish with the remaining ¼ cup grated cheese.
Bake until the edges of the baking dish are bubbling and the cheese is lightly browned, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.