Lumaconi con melanzane, ricotta fresca e noci
I’m not really one for ‘super-foods’. Despite all the recent fuss about super-foods, my stomach-guided brain still isn’t convinced by certain celebrities trying to badger us all into eating basically parrot food. And, regrettably, I don’t feel comfortable being instructed to cook whatever is this week’s trendy grain, which I can’t confidently pronounce anyway. Is it quin-oh-ah?
But, if there is one food that deserves ‘super’ status, then it’s definitely aubergines. Now that more and more people are consciously making the effort to cut down on their meat consumption – for health, sustainability and austerity reasons – aubergines, these remarkable Jeff Koons-esque vegetables, are rightly celebrated as a marvellous meat alternative. Aubergines are ‘Quorn’ for people who prefer their food to have flavour – with their subtle bitter-smokiness, they’re wonderfully versatile and their plump fleshiness is ideal for setting off and soaking up flavours. In fact, the aubergine is technically a berry, but aubergines will always be the greatest vegetables to me. When these squeaky- fresh purple pleasures are partnered with aromatic herbs and doused in olive oil, I think they surpass many of the most prestigious cuts of meat.
Needless to say, Italians don’t really do faux-meat alternatives. This is because so many common dishes involve simply and exquisitely cooked fresh vegetables that take centre stage at the dinner table. This vegetable-centric cooking is something that chimes with me and my taste buds, and aubergines have long felt indispensable to this way of cooking. Known as melanzane throughout Italy, aubergines are especially cherished in Sicily, which was one of the first places in Europe to be acquainted with these strangely shiny vegetables when the Arabs brought them over in the thirteenth century. Beautiful but bizarre, these purple slong-shaped things must have seemed completely alien at first. Now though, aubergines are fundamental to so many of the timeless Sicilian dishes: pasta alla Norma, caponata, and parmigiana di melanzane – the al forno dish loved throughout Italy, which frequently provides Italians an enjoyable opportunity to vent local rivalry (yes, that age-old Italian past-time), as they argue about where parmigiana di melanzane first originated. To suggest that it was first created anywhere other than Sicilia/Puglia/Emilia-Romagna/Campania (take your pick) is lunacy.
It is important to remember friends that you must choose your aubergines wisely. Giorgio Locatelli explains that you should avoid buying any boated large aubergines and especially any that feel too heavy, because “this shows they are full of seeds and so only good to make aubergine caviar”. Instead, select medium-sized aubergines and go for the ones that are tight, smooth and give out a little squeak like when you nip them. If you can, try to get a hold of the pale round varieties that are typically used in Sicily. Mary-Taylor Simeti suggests this variety tends to be less bitter and “the pulp is delicious when cooked, becoming soft and creamy”. That said, any carefully chosen aubergine of any variety has the potential to be delicious.
For this dish I have used a pasta shape that will excel at catching the little walnut bits inside, so that in most mouthfuls you get that all-important textural contrast. The decidedly nutty, somewhat bitter flavour of aubergine makes it have an affinity with toasted walnuts (which I’m told is a very popular pairing in both Turkey and Russia). Adding the topping of caramelised onions, with the concluding zing of lemon juice, balances all the flavours nicely and ramps up the deliciousness. I love this recipe, but please feel free to experiment with this dish and get creative. For a variation, chopped fresh thyme could be added into the sauce, though here (see below) I used thyme just as a pretty garnish.
A note before you start: Many excellent chefs still do it, but I rarely bother salting aubergines because nowadays their natural bitterness has been all but bred out. Having conducted my own entirely amateur experiments, I’ve never noticed any difference in final taste if you season your dish properly – but if you’d like, it will do absolutely no harm to salt the aubergines for half an hour or so before you begin. It is sometimes said that salting is worth the effort if you are frying, because the salting process apparently cleanses the oil-thirsty aubergines of any excess moisture and so prevents the aubergines from immediately sucking up all your expensive oil the instant they enter the pan. However, I’m not so sure this is particularly effective, so if I want to use less oil, I tend to pre-cook the aubergines on half-power in the micro-wave for a few minutes. Or in this case, I grill them.
Lumaconi con melanzane, ricotta fresca e noci
Serves 3 as a main course
- 2 medium-sized aubergines
- 290g dried lumaconi or orecchiette pasta
- 3 tablespoons shelled walnuts (or equivalent in whole nuts)
- extra-virgin olive oil
- small pinch of crumbled dried peperoncino or dried chilli flakes
- 1 small onion finely sliced
- 175g good ricotta cheese
- pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 4 heaped tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- juice of half a fresh lemon
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Spread out the shelled walnuts on a baking tray and toast them in the oven until golden-brown, for about 5 minutes at 170°C. * Whilst the walnuts are still warm, wrap them up in a tea-towel and give them a vigorous rub to remove as much of the skins as you can, before peeling off the remnants with a small paring knife. Chop the nuts roughly.
Cut the aubergine cross-wise into about 5mm disks. Heat a griddle pan till smoking-hot or crank up your grill to a high heat. Cook the disks of aubergine in batches, for around 2 minutes on each side. When you’ve cooked the lot, stack them into small piles and chop the aubergine into strips. Brush the strips gently with olive oil, season with salt and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan, add the peperoncino and onion. Cook over a moderate heat until soft, darkened and partially caramelised. Set the pan aside.
Cook the pasta in lots of heavily-salted water until al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, spoon the ricotta into a large bowl, big enough to hold the pasta later. Grate the nutmeg over the ricotta and add a purposeful grinding of black pepper. Spoon in some of the pasta cooking water and whisk together with a fork. Next, whisk in ¾ of the freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to make a creamy white sauce. Add most of the walnuts and aubergine. Mix well. Loosen up the sauce with some more pasta-water if necessary. Check for seasoning. Keep the bowl warm.
Drain the pasta when it’s ready, reserving some of the pasta-water, and carefully mix well into the warmed sauce. Squeeze in a little fresh lemon juice to make it zing. Loosen things up with more pasta-water, if necessary.
Spoon the pasta into three deep individual bowls. Top with the reserved aubergine slices and chopped walnuts. Spoon the cooked onions over the top, trickling their chilli-infused cooking oil over the pasta. Sprinkle on the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve with a garnish of fresh thyme.
* It’ll still taste okay if you leave the skins on; but if you’ve time it’s even better if you can remove them.