We were fondly reminiscing about our trips to Sicily after my post last week. As usual the discussions led to the food – the intensely flavoured vegetables, the remarkable cheeses and the freshness of the seafood. Our children had many favourites of the trip, some of which surprised me, such as pasta with sardines and fennel, pasta with squid ink, baked tomato pasta wrapped in aubergine slices and pasta with almond and pistachio pesto sauce.
The baked tomato pasta wrapped in aubergine has a particular wow factor as our children were not very excited to see what looked like a block of aubergine but squealed with delight at the magical appearance of pasta when cut open. Maybe there is something to be said about lowering their expectations before exceeding them.
Timballo di melanzane (baked pasta wrapped in aubergine/eggplant) – Sicilia
The key to this recipe is to use good, flavourful tomatoes and good quality pasta which will not become overly soft when baked. For illustrated step-by-step instructions, click here.
5 aubergines (eggplant), sliced 2 to 3 mm thick (skin on)
120 ml vegetable oil
20 mls extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, skin removed and finely chopped
2 medium onions, skin end ends removed and finely chopped
1 kilo plum tomatoes, skin and seeds removed (see method here) and coarsely chopped (can replace with two tins of peeled San Marzano tomatoes)
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, rinsed and finely chopped or 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
10 leaves basil, rinsed, dried and finely chopped
500 grams short tubular pasta penne or rigatoni
200 grams sliced block mozzarella or caciocavallo cheese
50 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, finely grated
20 grams butter, room temperature
Black pepper, freshly ground
Toss the aubergine slices in a couple of 10 grams (2 teaspoons) sea salt and let sit in a colander for 30 minutes in the sink. Meanwhile line a springform pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 200C.
In a large frying pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Fry the aubergine slices in the oil until golden and then turn over (about 2 minutes each side). Fry until golden on both sides and remove to drain on a wire rack.
When cool enough to handle, line the pan with the aubergine, overlapping the slices slightly to cover the bottom and sides. Leave enough to make a layer in the middle and to cover the top. Leave longer slices on the sides to fold over the top when finished.
Fill a large pot with 6 litres of water and 60 grams of salt (it will mostly be washed away). Separately, in a large saucepan fry the garlic and onions in the olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cover and cook for 30 minutes, squashing the tomatoes as you go. Add the oregano, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat.
Boil the pasta, giving it a good stir after being added to the water. Cook for the amount of time indicated on the package minus 4 minutes. Drain the pasta and mix with the tomato sauce.
Pour half of the tomato pasta into the aubergine lined tin. Top evenly with the cheeses. Place a layer of sliced aubergine on top of the cheese. Add the remaining tomato pasta.
Fold the long slices on the sides over the top of the pasta, filling in with the rest of the aubergine. Smear the butter evenly over the top. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove and let sit for at least 15 minutes before turning out onto a plate. Cut with a large serrated knife and serve in slices.