Five years ago or so, I spent a few days in Palermo, Sicily. It wasn’t at all hard to find good places to eat. On aside street near the state archives where I was working, I found a small family-operated trattoria that provided me two good lunches two days in a row. On the first afternoon, I ordered pasta with eggplant in a tomato sauce. The server — a shy, young woman who was the daughter of the cook — brought me a plate of penne covered with a thick sauce. When the taste of mint unexpectedly exploded on my taste buds, I must have looked surprise. My server, who was waiting to see how I liked my food, said, “Do you like it? We add mint to our sauces.” Her attentiveness to my reaction made me wonder if the addition of mint represented a radical experiment on the cook’s part. Or was it typically Sicilian? She really couldn’t say. But she gave me the impression that the cook like to experiment with flavors that were common in Sicilian cooking.
Since then, I’ve tried to incorporated mint into tomato sauces with eggplant and had mixed results. This time, I think I nearly succeeded. The only drawback of the plate of pasta I concocted last night was the quality of the mint I culled from my garden. Because the mint plants are rather stiff and past their prime, I cut back on the amount, which had a beneficial effect on the result.
As for the sauce, this time, I decided to adapt one of Marcella’s other basic tomato sauce. It could easily become my favorite.
First, Marcella’s recipe:
2 lbs fresh, ripe tomatoes, [blanched and skinned], or 2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
5 T butter
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
1 to 1 1/2 lbs pasta
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for table
Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomato. Stir from time to time, mashing any large piece of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.
My very free version:
Beginning with 6 pounds of tomatoes, I blanched them for 45 seconds and then peeled them when they were cool enough to handle. I chopped them up coarsely. Having only one big sweet white onion, I chopped it coarsely and added it to the tomatoes. Then, I cut up 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter, which I added to the tomatoes.
Instead of simmering the sauce for only 45 minutes, I turned the flame as low as it would go and simmered the sauce for nearly two hours. The liquid reduced by half, which still left me a lot of sauce.
After I removed the sauce from the heat and let it cool a bit, I put two and a half ladlefuls at a time into a food processor and pulsed it. Once I had processed all of the sauce, I froze most of it, but kept aside about a cup and a half.
Now comes the eggplant part:
I cubed about a pound of Japanese eggplant. Pour very generous slugs of olive oil into a skillet. It will disappear in no time once I add the eggplant cubes. Eggplant always takes a good 15 to 20 mins on a medium-low flame to sauté to the point where the meat of the eggplant is caramelized sufficiently and the edges of the cubes are browned. For this reason, I don’t start the pasta water until the eggplant is nearly done but I start heating the water before I add the tomato sauce.
When the eggplant is soft enough, I add the tomato sauce I’ve reserved from the batch I’ve made and then turned down the heat.
I chopped a handful of mint, but only add half of it to the eggplant and sauce. While the pasta water came to a boil, I simmered the eggplant in the sauce, letting the sauce reduce and the fats to separate from the tomato sauce. Season with salt (I used my new favorite, Maldon sea salt, and it brighten the sauce right up).
Into the water went the orrecchiete. When it was done, I drained it quickly but did not shake off much of the water. Right into the pan with the eggplant sauce and I stirred to coat. The pasta should not be smothered in sauce. As a final touch, I sprinkled the other half of the chopped mint. A bit of parmigiano binds the flavors, but don’t drizzle olive oil. You want the silky flavor of the butter to emerge.
I’d love it if someone gave me a reason to follow Marcella’s direction to simmer the sauce only 45 minutes. I fear that the tomatoes would be insufficiently cooked. However you adapt this combination of flavors — butter, tomato, eggplant, and mint — I think its success depends on the butteriness playing the bass line along with melody of the other flavors.