Classic Sicilian pasta of fusilli tossed with eggplant, tomatoes, and capers with added tofu to boost the protein punch.
Re-entry has not been smooth. After spending a month in Italy, my internal clock remains in vacanza, as it clearly has no idea if I should be awake or asleep at any given moment. Admittedly, catching a bad cold the final day of vacation followed by staying up for 24 hours straight the day we flew home hasn't helped.
But I know this will all settle out with time, like most things in life, and truthfully it’s so nice to be back wrapped in the familiar sights and smells of home, as Myles and I pick back up the strings of our lives.
The trip was a wonderful opportunity to travel to towns and regions of Italy I hadn’t been to yet, and to be reminded anew how food can change so dramatically from one region to the next. There were so many dishes I tried that were new to me, and I foresee countless hours of experiments in my future as I unravel the secrets of making farinata, a popular chickpea dish throughout Liguria, and a vegetable flan in a Parmesan sauce I inhaled in Genoa.
While traveling, I dined on pasta for either lunch or dinner (and sometimes both) nearly every day. Arguably one of the world's top comfort foods, it's also a great way to see how Italy's food changes from one region (or town) to the next – through both the sauce and the shape of the pasta. Fusilli, shown in this recipe, brings Sicily to mind with women twisting dough around their knitting needles to form the distinctive shape that hugs their sauces of eggplant and tomatoes so effectively. Liguria which runs along the Italian Riviera, is home to the pesto sauce and its trademark thin trofie pasta rolled in the palm of the hand. And if you ever see a seductive beet ravioli on a menu tossed in browned butter and poppy seeds, you can be sure it’s provenance traces back to one of the Italian Regions in the north, like Trentino – Alto Adige.
So, a little about this pasta dish: it's pure Sicily with it’s fusilli pasta noodles tossed in an eggplant-tomato-caper sauce, but we actually had it in a small trattoria in Florence, Birreria Centrale, that spills out onto a small piazza a marble-stones throw from the Orsanmichele Church and Museum. It made for a very cozy, romantic setting for our last evening in Italy with it’s arched brick ceiling, eclectic heavy pews and thrones for seating, and large wooden framed windows that swung out to the piazza to usher in the mildly cool night air.
The food was simple and absolutely fabulous. We shared several dishes that night and they were all winners. If you’re planning a trip to Florence, I heartily recommend it, although in the interest of full disclosure, their version of the pasta didn’t incorporate the tofu which I added, so feel free to omit it if you’re not a fan. Although, and no pressure here, the tofu blends so completely into the sauce by absorbing all the flavors this might be a great way to try tofu if you’ve been thinking about it.
And as a quick note on the recipe, many eggplants will work in this recipe except perhaps Chinese eggplants as they are a little sweeter and I'm not sure that would go well with this recipe. I used a large globe eggplant as shown in the below photo I snapped in an Italian open market.
Fusilli with Eggplant Tomatoes and Capers
- 1 large eggplant equals about 1 cup cubed, post salting
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup minced yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons minced carrot
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- ¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- few twists of pepper
- ⅓ cup coarsely chopped semi-soft tofu
- 4 ½ cups chopped tomatoes with their juices canned tomatoes can be substituted
- 1 ½ tablespoons capers rinsed
- ⅓ cup vegetable broth
- 1 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 cups dried fusilli pasta
- Parmesan cheese optional
- Slice off the top and bottom from the eggplant and peel. Slice into ½" slices, lightly salt, and place in a colander. Weight the eggplant down with some plates and let sit for 30 minutes. The salt can counter some bitterness frequently present in eggplant, and help remove moisture. Chop and set aside.
- Heat up the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat and add the onion and carrot. Once they become just tender, about 8 - 10 minutes, add the thyme, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Saute for another couple of minutes to open up the herbs and spices, and add the tofu. Saute for another couple of minutes.
- Add the eggplant, tomatoes, capers, and vegetable broth. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the tomatoes break down and melt into the sauce. Add the balsamic vinegar and stir. Simmer for another minute.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions.
- Toss the pasta and sauce together and serve with Parmesan cheese on the side.