N’casciata: Sicilian Baked Eggplant Pasta by Foodie’s Chef Laura Brennan
January 29, 2021
I read cookbooks and I read mysteries. And it’s a bonus when the mysteries reveal a few great meals!
One of my favorite series, written by the late Andrea Camilleri, is set in a fictional Sicilian coastal town. The protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano fervently anticipates each meal and eats with gusto and complete concentration (no talking!). This pasta dish is often prepared by the faithful Adelina, his long-time housekeeper. Adelina prepares traditional Sicilian recipes and is very proud that Salvo so enjoys her cooking. The title, ‘n’casciata’, describes a baked pasta dish ‘encased’ (n’casciata) in layers of fried eggplant. I have, with my sincere apologies to Adelina, lightened and simplified this classic: the eggplant is not sliced and fried, but is diced, coated in olive oil and roasted in the oven AND I have swapped out the labor-intensive traditional beef ragu with a store-bought marinara. (I always use RAO’S marinara sauces; both the flavor and texture are close to homemade.)
I’m confidant Salvo would enjoy my version as well.
- Prep: 40 mins
- Cook: 40 mins
- Yields: 4 to 6
1 whole eggplant, about 1½ pounds
10-12 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
¾ cup finely diced onion
3 or 4 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced or mashed to a paste
2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
¼ to ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)
5-6 ounces sopressata salami, cut into small ¼” dice
12 ounces dried pasta like penne, cavatappi, fusilli or rigatoni
24-ounce jar (3 cups) RAO’S Marinara Sauce (or your favorite)
5 ounces provolone cheese, diced or grated
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded or grated
¾ cup grated Parmigiana Reggiano or pecorino cheese, divided
Optional: 1 cup frozen peas, rinsed under cold running water
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare the eggplant
Wash and dry the eggplant. Cut off the stem end and the base. Lay the eggplant on its side and slice into ½-inch rings. One-by-one, slice each ring into ½-inch strips and then cut each strip across into ½-inch diced pieces. (You will have 5-6 cups of diced eggplant.) Add all the diced eggplant to a large bowl and sprinkle with no more than ½ teaspoon of kosher salt. Toss frequently to make sure all the pieces are evenly salted.
Line a sheet pan with paper towels and spread out the eggplant. Cover the eggplant with additional paper towels and lightly press down on the eggplant. Set aside for 30-45 minutes. (This technique of salting the eggplant draws out both excess liquid and potential bitter compounds.)
Cook the pasta.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Add the pasta and stir until water comes back to the boil. Cook just until the pasta is still VERY al dente. Taste the pasta, it should taste very under-cooked! Reserve 1 cup of the pasta-cooking water. Drain the pasta and put it into a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients. Coat and toss the pasta with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and set aside.
Cook the eggplant
Pat away any excess moisture from the eggplant. Toss in a large bowl and coat with ¼ cup olive oil. Use more oil as necessary to coat pieces evenly and completely. Don’t skimp. Lightly oil a sheet pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Spread out the oil-coated eggplant pieces evenly on the sheet pan and roast until tender, about 30-40 minutes. Taste for doneness. When tender, remove pan from oven and set aside to cool. Leave the oven turned on.
Prepare the ‘flavorings’
Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a small sauté pan and turn on the heat to medium. Add the diced onions and a pinch of kosher salt. Cook onions until translucent. Add the prepared garlic and cook for another minute. Add the dried basil and oregano and the diced sopressata salami. Stir to combine all. Remove from heat and set aside.
Assembly and Baking
To the large bowl of cooked pasta add the cooked eggplant and the cooked onion-garlic-herb mixture. Stir to combine. Add 2 ½ cups marinara sauce (reserve ½ cup) along with the diced provolone, the grated mozzarella and ½ cup grated Parmigiana or pecorino cheese. If using peas, add them now as well.
Stir well to evenly combine all the ingredients. Add more marinara sauce if needed. Add some or all of the reserved pasta water if needed. The mix should be loose, not tight but not runny either.
Taste the mixture and make any necessary seasoning changes: Salt? Pepper? Hot red pepper flakes?
Lightly coat the casserole dish you will be using with olive oil or butter. Fill the dish with the pasta mixture and sprinkle the top with the remaining ¼ cup grated pecorino or Parmigiana cheese.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes or until browned and bubbly.
Let sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.