Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: A must at any Italian family gathering, this Calabrian spin on baked pasta has a bit of a kick, and is a perfect place for late-summer eggplant.
When you need to feed a hungry Italian family, pasta al forno works every time. Baked pasta is a must at any family gathering, in any of its regional incarnations, from Bologna's lasagne to this riggidanella from Calabria.
As with lasagne, this recipe requires you to prepare a few elements in advance (a béchamel sauce, a tomato sauce, boiled pasta, and deep-fried eggplant slices), but it's actually quite low-maintenance. Once you have everything prepared, you can assemble the dish ahead of time, then pop it into the oven whenever you're hungry. It's also very forgiving, travels well, and can feed many hungry bellies in one go -- all honorable characteristics of a good family dish.
The touch of chile in the tomato sauce and the mounds of deep-fried eggplant are classic ingredients in Calabrian cooking, which always includes plenty of vegetables. Although it's unorthodox, those who don't like frying or eating fried foods can grill the eggplant instead. This hearty vegetarian dish is sometimes beefed up with boiled eggs and layers of mortadella or ham.
There is much discussion on whether or not salting eggplant is necessary: Some think it's an old fashioned thing to do, but any Calabrian home cook would salt their eggplant for a couple of hours before rinsing, draining, and deep-frying. This not only removes (so-called) bitterness, but it also draws out water, making the eggplant marvelously soft when grilled or baked, and less greasy when fried. In my opinion, it makes the eggplant taste better. If you have the time and the patience to salt your eggplants before frying them, do it.
You can serve this baked pasta a number of ways. Usually, the slices of fried eggplant line a large casserole dish. The pasta is tossed with the tomato sauce, then layered with béchamel and more eggplant. Some cooks combine the tomato and béchamel sauces for a rose-colored dish.
Once baked and browned and bubbling, riggidanella can be served as-is, homely and humble, or inverted and presented at the table on a serving plate to show off the layer of eggplant. If you want to jazz things up a bit, you can serve individual portions in ramekins, like I have here. Inverting ramekins is also undoubtedly easier and less intimidating than inverting a whole pan.
Serves 4 to 6
2 medium-sized eggplants
1 garlic clove, chopped finely
1 bottle (25 ounces or 750 milliliters) tomato passata (tomato purée)
A handful of basil leaves
1 small dried chile, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried chile flakes)
1 pound (500 grams) rigatoni, maccheroni, or mezze maniche (or other similar short pasta)
3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) butter
1/3 cup (50 grams) flour
2 cups (500 milliliters) milk, warmed
Olive oil, for frying
Photos by Emiko Davies