Pasta is a generous co-star. There are some dishes where it takes center stage, minimally coated with a sauce designed to bring out its wheaty excellence. But just as often, pasta is content to play a supporting role. And in this summery dish, the spotlight is definitely on the vegetables.
The recipe began with the giant globe eggplant in my refrigerator. I reasoned that if I cubed the eggplant, oiled it and roasted it to caramelized tenderness, I could use the half-hour it needed in the oven to figure out what came next.
Naturally, I also had a pile of heirloom tomatoes weeping on my counter. They were so ripe and juicy, I knew they’d defy any knife’s attempt to cube them.
Instead, I rubbed them over the holes of a box grater, letting the flesh fall into a purée. It’s a technique I use often in tomato season when I have luscious but overripe tomatoes. Bonus: The grater holes purée the tomato flesh but stop at the peel, so you can easily get pure pulp without any skin.
Simmering down the tomato pulp with a little olive oil, garlic and chiles is a fast and easy way to make a fresh tomato sauce. If you cook it down a lot, it becomes intense and thick, like a sofrito, and can be the base of any number of more complex concoctions: soups, stews and rice dishes.
Or if you just simmer it briefly to concentrate the sweetness, it’s lovely on pasta, which is what I decided to do. After all, pasta with tomato and eggplant is one of the glories of summer cooking.
Sauce on the stove, eggplant in the oven, all I needed to do to finish the meal was boil up some pasta and combine everything.
To season the dish, I added capers for a salty bite, herbs for brightness, a bit of butter for richness and some grated cheese to round it all out. The result was velvety from the eggplant, sweet from the tomato sauce, tangy with capers and cheese, and fresh from the herbs. The mellow pasta was there to anchor it all, playing a crucial supporting role to the vegetables.
Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Pasta
1 3/4 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 to 2 banana or Italian frying peppers, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
12 ounces pasta, such as campanelle or farfalle
2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, halved through their equators
1 to 2 fat garlic cloves, grated or minced
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons brine-packed capers, drained
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
Grated ricotta salata or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Spread out eggplant cubes and peppers on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with 3 tablespoons oil and season well with salt. Roast, turning everything, until eggplant and peppers are very soft and deeply golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in well-salted boiling water until about 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain.
Using the large holes of a box grater, grate tomatoes over a large skillet so the pulp falls into the skillet. To do this, hold on to the curved side of the tomato in your hand and slide the cut, flat side across the holes. Stop grating just before you reach the skin.
Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan with the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer until tomato pulp is reduced by half, then season to taste with salt.
Add the pasta, capers and butter, if using, to the pan with the tomatoes and bring to a simmer, tossing until butter melts and pasta finishes cooking, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and toss in eggplant and cheese, if using.
Serve drizzled with a little more oil.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings