Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the compendium volume that brings her first two cookbooks together, is one of the two most stained cookbooks in my collection (Mrs. K.M Mathew’s Flavours of the Spice Coast is the other). I have been cooking from it for almost 25 years and many of her recipes have become family staples over the years. But since it’s only been a few years since I began eating baingan/eggplant, I’d never really paid much attention to her eggplant recipes. This summer, however, the eggplants in my community garden plot went off like a bomb and in desperate search of more and more ways to cook them I finally came to Marcella’s recipe for Eggplant Sauce with Tomato and Red Chilli Pepper. I made it with spaghetti and it was dynamite. I made it again and it was dynamite again. Since it needed no amendment, leave alone improvement, I obviously immediately began to think of ways to tinker with it. This led in short order to this fusiony variation that we might possibly now like even more.
Marcella’s recipe—which appears to be all but identical to that for the Sicilian classic Pasta Alla Norma, though she does not cite it—calls for eggplant to be cut into disks, fried to a crisp, set aside then cut into strips and added to a fairly regulation tomato sauce right before the pasta is tossed in it. In this version, the eggplant is instead charred over a flame or ideally charcoal, peeled and chopped to a near pulp as you would if preparing a classic baingan bharta. Indeed, the sauce itself is treated like a very tomato heavy bharta. I start by tempering crumbled dried hot chillies in oil, then adding and browning onions—which are not present at all in Marcella’s recipe—before adding the garlic. For those who follow my Indian recipes this will seem like a very familiar progression. Then a lot more tomatoes than would go into most baingan bhartas and finally the pulped roasted eggplant is added at the end as in Marcella’s recipe. And instead of cooking the sauce with parsley I add cilantro before tossing the pasta with the sauce.
The result is a tomato sauce with a rich texture and a lovely smoky flavour. It’s not bharta and it’s not Marcella’s sauce (or Pasta Alla Norma)—and it’s probably hotter than Marcella intends her sauce to be—but it’s very, very good and somewhere between Italy and India. Give it a go and tell me what you think.
- 1-2 globe eggplants, about 1 lb
- 4-5 hot red chillies
- 1 medium red onion, sliced
- 2 tspns minced garlic
- 2 lbs chopped fresh tomatoes with their juice
- 2 tblspns chopped cilantro for garnish
- Olive oil
- 1 lb pasta of choice
- Parmesan (optional)
- Char the eggplant all over until the skin is completely blackened, blistered and split. Doing this over charcoal is best but you can also char it over the flame on a gas burner or, I suppose, under a broiler. Once blackened all over set aside on a plate till cool enough to handle. Then remove as much of the blistered peel as possible without getting overly committed to the task. Split off the harder stem end as well and with a sharp knife chop the softened flesh to a near pulp. Set aside.
- Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and crumble the dried red chillies into it.
- Wait about 10 seconds and add the onion. Mix thoroughly and saute till the onions have softened and begun to brown.
- Add the garlic and saute for a minute or so or till the raw aroma is gone.
- Add the chopped tomatoes with their juice and a large pinch of salt, mix in and cook at a simmer till the oil begins to separate.
- Add the chopped, roasted eggplant, mix in thoroughly and simmer for another 5-7 minutes.
- Taste and adjust for salt.
- Add the cooked, drained pasta to the skillet along with the cilantro and toss thoroughly.
- Serve with optional grated parmesan.
- I char the eggplant first and start the tomato sauce while it is cooling. By the time the sauce is ready for the eggplant it will have cooled enough for you to have peeled and chopped it.
- Not that you’re likely to be tempted to but don’t puree the peeled, roasted eggplant; the variable consistency you get by chopping with a knife is good. And it’s also quite cathartic at the end of a long day to chop the eggplant with a knife.
- This may be obvious but the pasta should not finish cooking before the sauce is ready. It should be added to the sauce right as it is drained (and don’t rinse it in cold water either).
- I prefer this without parmesan grated over but the missus quite likes it that way.
- We like this sauce with spaghetti but perhaps even more so with penne.
- I think in my next iteration I might up the masala component by adding a bit of powdered roasted cumin.
- If, like me, you have a surfeit of baingan from you garden it’s quite worth it to light a grill to char them all at once. Peel, chop, puree, separate into equal portions (one portion per pound of baingan) and freeze (I use ziplocks) for use later whether in this sauce or in bharta.
- So, is Marcella’s recipe in fact a version of Pasta Alla Norma? Far be it from me to criticize the sainted Marcella—more influential on my approach to cooking than all but a very small handful of people—but I have to say that her book is not always committed to the citation/attribution of recipes.
- Also let me know if it turns out that I’ve more or less recreated some established version of the classic Italian sauce.
[The cookbook links in this post are affiliate links.]