O ur oven in Sicily has two settings – hot and fierce. It is also tricky to light – the little pilot flame may burn enthusiastically, but how long it will take to ignite the whole oven, if at all, is anyone’s guess. Last year, when a lasagne for many had to be baked and I was at the point of throwing the oven out of the window into Via Crispi, my partner Vincenzo took the lighter from me as if disarming me and pulled a chair up to the oven. He then sat with a holiday-coloured drink in one hand, the lighter in the other and stayed there until the oven of a thousand baked pastas, the gas-fired heirloom from his late and much-loved Grandma Sara, burst into life with a gassy poofff.
Once lit, I am reluctant to turn it off, even in the height of summer. Occasionally I am organised with a sequence of things – one of the endless savoury tarts that fuel our holidays, a plain cake or tray of easy biscuits. But mostly, after whatever needs cooking is cooked, I end up bowling red peppers or aubergines into the belly of the Bompani beast and turning the dial up to fierce.
It was during one of those sessions, with a pair of deepest-purple and pendulous aubergines, that today’s recipe came about. Magical things happen to aubergines when baked whole, although it doesn’t look like it with their skin wrinkling and charring, their taut form collapsing like a deflated bouncy castle the day the fair packs up to move on to a new town. Inside, though, the spongy flesh is transforming into soft almost-silkiness.
Aubergines need about an hour – in an oven you can control that’s at 200C/390F/gas 6 – then to be set aside until cool enough to handle. Once their charred skins have been pulled away, the now-collapsed flesh is the most unprepossessing thing, looking exactly like a grubby dishcloth – especially when it is set dripping over the sink.
More often than not, I turn this silky, slightly smoky flesh of baked aubergine into a baba ganoush-like dip, which, over time – like much in our edible life – is turned into a pasta sauce.
Recently I have changed the method slightly, chopping a clove of garlic, a handful of pine nuts or almonds, and a good pinch of parsley, then cooking these gently in olive oil, before adding the roughly chopped aubergine flesh and seasoning with salt and black pepper. Throwing shape- and sauce-matching rules to the wind, we have eaten this sauce with spaghetti, casarecce, rigatoni and fusilli, and topped, as here, with a blizzard of salted ricotta, which has a sharp sheepishness that’s a perfect match for the satiny aubergine.
Don’t forget to turn the oven off.
Aubergine and salted ricotta pasta
Prep 10 min
Cook 1 hr
2 large aubergines
500g pasta – spaghetti, rigatoni, fusilli or penne
1 clove garlic
1 small handful flat-leaf parsley
10g pine nuts
5 tbsp olive oil
Salted ricotta, grated
Salt and black pepper
Bake the aubergines whole, directly on the rack, for 45 minutes to an hour, or until collapsed and wrinkled, then take out of the oven. Once cool enough to handle, pull away the now-charred skin – a task best done in a sieve over the sink – and leave to drip. When they are dry, chop roughly.
Put a pan of salted water on for the pasta. Chop the garlic, pine nuts and parsley, fry gently in the olive oil over a medium flame until fragrant, then add the aubergine flesh and stir. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta until al dente, drain and then add to the aubergine. Toss together, divide between bowls and serve, passing around grated salted ricotta.