Monday 17 September 2012

Al Fresco with Friends - Lidia Bastianich's Ziti with Roasted Eggplant & Ricotta Cheese

Nothing bonds quite like good food, cooked with love, shared amongst good company. Italian food has a particularly cohesive quality where one can sit down a stranger and rise a relation. I recently invited a number of friends to enjoy a multiple-course, Italian-themed meal inspired by renowned chef/author Lidia Bastianich. Her culinary catchphrase is "Tutti a tavola a mangiare!" (Everyone to the table to eat!). This phrase resonates with me, as both the sensual and the sacred nature of sharing food has drawn me into kitchens since I licked my first spoon. The magnetic potency of this saying is notoriously 'cooked into' the food Lidia prepares: luring hungry people to gather around their tables not just to enjoy food, but also to enjoy one another's company. My dinner guests that evening told me they were lured toward my house by the smell of chocolate. Ignoring for a moment the reality of the nearby Kit Kat factory, I indulged in the compliment that my house could be located not just geographically, but sensually. The truth is, on most nights, with the right breezes, this is entirely possible. This perfect late-summer evening was no exception: the evening's menu highlighted a tasty, seasonal pasta dish from Lidia's brand-new cookbook: Lidia's Favourite Recipes (on sale Oct. 16th). The Ziti with Roasted Eggplant and Ricotta Cheese was a standout, and judging by the friends that gathered around my table that evening, infused with exactly the right amount of 'come-hither' deliciousness.

Lidia's dishes encourage a natural and joyful coming together of both flavors and friends. Attention to detail and fresh, seasonal ingredients are what made the food and the evening a success: locally-grown vegetables, homemade ricotta instead of store-bought; fresh-picked basil from my garden; white linen; fresh flowers, flattering candlelight, and Paolo Conte softly crooning "Sotto le stelle del jazz" in the background.

I made the ricotta that morning, enjoying the alchemical, rather maternal process of nurturing milk and lemons to become creamy cheese. Check out my post What Ricotta Taught for the recipe.

I made plenty of ricotta for both the pasta recipe and to spread indulgently on fresh baguette for the antipasto course. We also enjoyed mini caprese skewers, assorted olives, marinated artichokes, and spicy pickled beans from my garden.

As the conversation and limonata flowed, I went inside to tend to the main course. Roasted eggplant is the star of this ziti dish. Two buxom specimens were scored, cubed, massaged gently with olive oil, and slow-roasted to golden brown perfection. 

For the sauce, sliced garlic was toasted in olive oil until golden and fragrant. Canned San Marzano tomatoes were squeezed by hand, heightening the intimacy, and added to the garlic and oil, along with some pepper flakes, which gave a flirtatiously spicy kick to the pasta dish.

The sauce bubbled away contentedly until the ziti were ready, at which point everything came together to form a community of flavors. The noodles welcomed the sauce, which nestled into each tube. Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano melted on contact; ribbons of basil lent a note of garden green; and spoonfuls of ricotta were folded in carefully to create warm pockets of creamy goodness that future forks would mine for.

The dish perfectly suited the feel of the evening - warm, comforting, and seductively Italian. Serving the pasta family-style encouraged pre-meditated second helpings.

And there was still room for more! Dessert for the evening was a Peach & Blueberry Frangipane Tart served à la mode, inspired by the sweeter offerings in Lidia's Favorite Recipes. Stay tuned next week for the recipe.

I think my house could be located by every sense that night: the inviting smell of garlic and roasted eggplant; the summery taste of garden-fresh seasonal ingredients; the compelling sounds of laughter and Italian jazz; the seductive creamy feel of fresh ricotta; and the beautiful sight of friendly faces glowing in the candlelight. Molto grazie, Lidia, for inspiring such a pleasant and delicious evening.

~ Tutti a tavola a mangiare! ~

ZITI with ROASTED EGGPLANT & RICOTTA CHEESE (Ziti alla Norma) - printed with permission from Lidia's Favorite Recipes by Lidia Maticchio Bastianich

2 large, firm eggplants (each about 3 inches in diameter and 1 1/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons coarse salt, plus more for cooking the pasta and seasoning the sauce
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
One 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano), with their liquid, crushed by hand
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 pound ziti
1 cup freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup fresh basil leaves, washed, dried, and shredded
1/2 pound (1 cup) whole-milk ricotta

Trim the stems from the eggplants. Remove strips of peel about 1 inch wide from the eggplants, leaving about half the peel intact. Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes, and toss in a large bowl with the two tablespoons salt. Dump into a colander, and let drain for 1 hour. Rinse the eggplant under cool running water, drain thoroughly, and pat dry. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush a baking sheet with half the olive oil. Turn the eggplant cubes onto the baking sheet, toss to coat with oil, and spread them out in an even layer. Bake until the eggplant is very tender and browned, about 25 minutes. Turn and stir the eggplant cubes gently once or twice during baking so they cook evenly. 

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat for the ziti. 

Heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Scatter the garlic over the oil, and cook, shaking the pan, until golden, about 3 minutes. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, add the pepper flakes, and season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. 

Stir the ziti into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 10 minutes.

Drain the pasta, and return it to the empty pot over low heat. Pour in about half the sauce, tossing lightly to coat the pasta with sauce. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in 1/2 cup of the grated cheese and the basil. Toss in half of the roasted eggplant cubes and toss again, then add the ricotta by heaping teaspoonfuls, stirring it gently into pasta; you want the ricotta to warm, but you do not want it to blend with the sauce completely.

Plate the pasta, and spoon the reserved sauce over each serving. Now add equal amounts of the remaining baked eggplant to the top of all the pasta plates. Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese, and serve.


  1. ...and why didn't I get an invite? LOL. Your Italian table looks delicious! I could've sworn you're in a garden in Italy instead of Canada!

  2. That is really good post, you have written it beautifully. Loved it, such posts always refreshes my soul. Thank you for sharing it

  3. Its so tempting.Good and delicious food is just effective like quality best essay writing that actually adds in your writing skills.Thanks for sharing this nice food.