Aubergines - silky, sexy, fabulous in so many forms. Its mild flavour and spongy texture means it can be transformed into the most extraordinary variety of dishes from hot spiced brinjal pickle (an absolute favourite), creamy moussaka, summer in a bowl ratatouille, extrordinary sea spice aubergine - it is one ingredient that has travelled the world and become integral to nearly every cuisine. They are popular in Asia, America, the middle east and across Europe ranging in shape from a shiny deep purple truncheon common here to small shiny white ovoids mostly in Africa where they are called garden eggs. See one and you will immediately understand!
I have been meaning to make this pasta dish for a couple of weeks - show me a new aubergine recipe and I will immediately plan to make it - and finally managed it this week. In her introduction Anna del Conte says this excellent pasticcio is another testimony to the aubergine's rare ability to blend with other flavours while retaining its own. Another reason perhaps for its ubiquity in world cuisine.
Pasticcio di pasta e melanzane in bianco
4 generous servings
The only change I made was to top it with fresh breadcrumbs before baking to add a tiny crackle of texture
For the bechamel
600ml full fat milk
2 bay leaves
60g unsalted butter
30g plain flour
60g Gruyère, freshly grated - I used the last of a piece of Coolea
60g Parmesan, freshly grated
Salt and pepper
1 small dried chilli
2 garlic cloves
a bunch of parsley
5 tbspn olive oil
Handful of fresh breadcrumbs (optional)
Heat the milk with the bay leaves to boiling point, turn of the heat and leave to infuse for about 30 minutes.
Cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water. Drain when very al dente.
As the pasta cooks...
Wash and dry the aubergines. Cut them lengthwise in 1 1/2cm slices, then into 2cm strips and finally cut these strips into 4cm length pieces. You're aiming to match the shape of the penne.
Chop the chili, garlic and parsley together and put it into a frying pan with the oil. Fry gently for a minute then add the aubergines. Sauté over a low heat for 10 minutes or so, turning them frequently, until soft and cooked through. Taste and adjsut the seasonings. Add the cooked pasta and sauté all together for 2-3 minutes, mixing it well with the aubergine. Turn into a buttered casserole dish.
Back to the bechamel...
In a large saucepan melt the butter, add the flour and cook for a minute or so until the flour loses its rawness and becomes biscuity in smell. Add the infused milk a little at a time and beat hard to incorporate. When all the milk has been added add salt and pepper to taste and bring to the boil. Simmer very gently for 10 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Add the grated cheeses to the bechamel and stir until they have melted into the sauce. Taste and check the seasonings.
Pour the bechamel over the aubergine and pasta, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, then bake at Gas 6/ 200C/ 400F for 20 minutes until there is a light golden crust. Leave out of the oven for 5 minutes before serving, for the flavours to blend.
When I read the recipe initially I wondered how much infusing the milk would really add to the finished dish. Don't be tempted to skip this step as it adds a deep savouriness to the sauce that perfectly complements the aubergine and so takes it from good to seriously great.