Isn’t she beautiful! All right, so her hat sits a bit crookedly. Big deal. She’s plump yet firm in all the right places, and the sheen of her skin is downright dazzling. And she only cost a dollar and eighty-nine cents. I ran into a sale on eggplant at our brand new Lucky’s Market this afternoon, and she had dinner written all over her. I often confess to a weakness for pretty produce. I’m going to dice up this little beauty and toss it into a marinara sauce because I just know it’s going to turn as wonderfully silken as the tomatoes.
My favorite tomato sauce ever comes from Marcella Hazan. I get cravings for it, not least because of the simplicity of its ingredients: canned tomatoes, an onion, butter, and salt. It doesn’t take much in the way of care and tending, and within about an hour simmers itself to unctuous perfection – enough time to feed the four-leggeds, change out of work clothes, sit down with a book, and let the day slough away. Not much in the way of cleanup, either. A weeknight dinner doesn’t get any better. Especially a dark and stormy one. Which tonight is. And because this sauce is going to be on the chunkier side than usual, it needs a pasta that can stand up to it. One with some shape and texture. A great big rigatoni never fails to make me feel happy with each generous bite.
1 yellow onion, cut in half and peeled
Red pepper flakes (my addition because I love them in practically everything)
1 medium eggplant, 1/2″ dice
35-ounce can of good peeled tomatoes
4 ounces of unsalted butter cut into 1/2″ pieces *
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon (if you don’t have access to good canned tomatoes, a splash of lemon juice will brighten the flavor of those you do have)
Fresh basil chiffonade for garnish
1/2 pound of rigatoni
* If you substitute olive oil for the butter, and use an eggless pasta which the DeCecco is, the recipe is vegan
1. Open the can of tomatoes. I feel so fortunate to have a Lucky’s Market within a few blocks of my house. Along with damn good deals on produce every day of the week, they carry genuine Italian canned tomatoes – a few different brands! – at prices that real people can afford. I keep a few cans in the pantry for nights when I need something fast. And good. I digress.
Open the can of tomatoes. Use scissors to cut them up right in the can. Then add the tomatoes and their juices to a pot large enough to contain finished sauce and the cooked pasta at the end. Stir in the eggplant, butter cubes, and red pepper flakes. Immerse the 2 onion halves.
Cover the pot. Allow it to come to a simmer gently over medium heat, then remove the lid and reduce the heat a bit so that flavors and textures can concentrate slowly. Continue gently simmering the sauce for about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring it occasionally. Begin tasting it after 45 minutes; you’ll recognize when it has reached a warmly rounded flavor profile. By the time it is done, its volume should have reduced by about half – you can tell by the beginning and ending marks around the edge of the pot. As the sauce reduces and thickens, turn the heat down so that it doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pot.
2. While the sauce is simmering, begin heating a pot of water to cook your pasta (hint: a covered pot boils faster than an uncovered pot). Conventional wisdom says that you need 4 to 6 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Pardon me, but I find the difference between 4 and 6 quarts of water significant. Too, the more substantial the pasta, the greater the water requirement. Always planning for leftovers, I typically cook a half pound of any kind of pasta at a time. Angel hair? 2 quarts, max. This rigatoni? For a half-pound, 3 quarts, easily. Maybe a little more. It wants to be able to tumble about readily and not stick together.
And what about salt? Do you remember an early reality show several years back that featured a chef by the name of Rocco DiSpirito and an Italian restaurant he was opening in New York? I can’t begin to remember the name of it, but on opening night, a fire erupted in a wall behind one of the stoves in the kitchen. In the basement. Yes, it went downhill from there. He was a idiot of a manager, but the guy can really cook (or could before he sold his soul to the diet industry). My point is that the one bit of useful information I took away from the whole mess was when he said that water for cooking pasta should “taste like the ocean.” While your sense of the taste of the ocean may be a bit different from mine, generally 2 tablespoons of sea (preferably, for what I trust are obvious reasons) or kosher salt added to 4 quarts of boiling water is a nice approximation.
Once the water comes to a boil, cook your pasta according to time indicated on the package. That means that you’ll set a timer for a minute or two less than the time given, then taste the pasta when the timer sounds. Italians tend to like their pasta way more “dente” than “al”. Undercooked as opposed to overcooked, in other words. Cook it to your taste, but know that I sit firmly in the “dente” camp.
3. When the pasta is within a couple of minutes of being done, use tongs to lift the onion sections out of the pot of sauce. Marcella would have you discard them, but don’t you dare! Once cool, wrap them in plastic and purée them into a vinaigrette, or scatter slices over a simple salad. Squeeze the lemon juice into the sauce, give it a stir, then taste it. Season it with salt and pepper. Stir it well, then give it another taste. When it meets with your approval, kiss your fingers and say, “Mmmmmwah!” Remove the pot from the heat.
4. Chiffonade of basil. WTF? It’s French for “ribbon”. Once chopped, basil is notorious for taking on the appearance of brown shreds of tobacco. However, if you chiffonade your basil, you will maintain its gorgeous greenness and look like the queen of the kitchen that you are. Pull some leaves off the plant that you have growing in a window. Lay them one on top of the other, matching them at the stems – 3 leaves at a time is good. Beginning at the stem end, roll them up into a tight cylinder like a cigar (clearly we’re on a tobacco roll here). With a sharp knife, slice the roll into very narrow ribbons. Toss them on the board with your fingers to separate them. They will remain green because you’ve sliced them in the direction that the cells grow, thereby avoiding the enzymatic browning that plagues avocados and bananas. And basil.
5. When your pasta is done, transfer a ladleful of the cooking water into your sauce, then drain the pasta through a colander, but not completely. Pour the pasta into the pot of sauce and gently stir everything together. Spoon it into bowls and scatter the fresh basil over the top. You really don’t need Parmesan with this. The lemon juice and basil brighten flavors to the extent that your palate will be quite content without it. Especially on a dark and stormy night.