With some foods, it’s love at first sight. Others make you work for it, requiring that you endure their flaws and imperfections to unveil their charms. Perhaps they intrigue you at first, capture your fancy, invite your attentions; but then they do something to irritate, confuse our outright hurt you, and you just don’t know where you stand with them. No big deal, you say, there are plenty of fish in the sea, to say nothing of what grows on land. And so you take your affections elsewhere.
But then you catch yourself making furtive glances in their direction. Your curiosity is piqued. Sure, they’re … difficult, but somehow also interesting for it. If only you could crack the code and discover the inner beauty.
So it was with me and bucatini. Until last weekend.
Bucatini, for those not versed, is a cruel joke of pasta: Thick, spaghetti-like strands with a narrow hole running the full length. To try to twirl the pasta around your fork results in irregular, spattering flailing of the snake-like noodles, flinging sauce artistically all over your shirt, kitchen walls and occasionally ceiling. Then, once you’ve crammed the tangled mass into your mouth, dribbling sauce down your chin and onto your lap, you cannot even slurp the dangling tubes in, as the hole in the center of the pasta makes each noodle into a fine straw through which you suck saucy air. Even bucatini’s most famous and celebrated dish, bucatini all’amatriciana, though deliciously bacony, is infuriatingly difficult to pronounce. (For the record, it’s boo-cah-TEE-nee all-lah-mah-tree-CHA-nah.)
So, bucatini was destined to be forever too high-maintenance for me. So many other pastas, so little time. But … being of Italian descent, I just couldn’t bear to turn my back
on one of my people’s creations. Bucatini are beloved by millions. They can’t all be pazzi. Can they?
Last week, my friend Ramona was in town, and she and her friend Susan hatched an idea to have a grand dinner party wherein each person took on a course and its wine pairing. I opted for an open slot between a risotto with winter vegetables and braised beef short ribs. I wanted something relatively light, but that would go nicely with a pinot noir to make a nice transition from the chardonnay slated for the risotto and of course cab for the beef (the menu changed several times from that point on, but no harm no foul). Moreover, it had to be fairly potluck-ready, so as not to unduly inconvenience the hostess by taking over her kitchen, yet still packing sufficient wow factor to stand up to the other dishes on the menu.
There was plenty of protein and richness on the menu already, so what to do? I remembered the cover shot of the 2006 The Best of Gourmet: The World at Your Fingertips: bundles of pasta wrapped in eggplant and lightly drizzled with a rustic tomato sauce. The pasta turned out to be bucatini.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you should not try out new dishes on people you do not know and/or want to impress. I have never been especially conventional nor wise, and decided to leap headfirst into this Sicilian dish. I mean, how hard could it be? You cook some eggplant, boil some pasta, roll it up and off you go, right?
Well, yes and no. It’s not that it was all that difficult, merely surprisingly time-consuming. You have to slice the eggplant, salt the eggplant, drain the eggplant, fry the eggplant, make a sauce, boil the pasta, drain and rinse the pasta, cut and bundle the pasta and roll it in individual slices of eggplant. In the end, I finished composing the dish, oven-ready, at 6:15 pm and dashed in the shower so we could make our 7 pm dinner date across town.
Dinner was an unqualified success. Course after course, and wine after wine, were accompanied by spirited conversation and peals of laughter. The food was amazing — canapés of pea puree tasting like the first awakening of spring; fresh dungeness crab-mango-jicama salad that danced on the palate with a glass of Piper-Heidseick; tender slices of fried abalone with an apricot-habanero compote; rich, freshly-caught duck with pancetta, onions and mushrooms; and perhaps the best cheesecake I have ever eaten. Smack in the middle was the eggplant-bucatini course.
I am by far my own harshest critic (and I am not interviewing candidates for that position), but as I lifted a forkful of the dish into my mouth, the world closed around me. The noodles were tender and springy; the eggplant fragrant and rich with a crispy skin; and the tomato sauce was bright and faintly piquant. It not only looked exactly like the picture on the cover, it tasted precisely as I hoped it would. Our new favorite wine, Arista Russian River Pinot Noir, was a light, refined and delicious counterpart.
That’s when it struck me. Bucatini are not bad, just misunderstood, or at least misapplied. It may be packaged as long pasta, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you have to eat it. This dish is a complete success because it leverages the best qualities of the pasta — its structure and springy texture — and requires neither twirling nor slurping.
The next morning, after having crawled in around 2:30 am, we weren’t hungry for breakfast, still working on the previous night’s bounty. But by noon we began to get peckish. I still had a little less than half the batch of bucatini, undressed, from the night before. A classic Italian use of leftover pasta is a lovely frittata, so in it went into the pan with a splash of sauce and some eggs and grated parmigiano whisked together. Cook until mostly set, a few minutes under the broiler, and ecco — instant brunch.
Again, the dish benefited from the playful texture of the bucatini against the fluffiness of the egg, and nary a swirl nor slurp to be had.
As a sidenote, the sauce we used was the remainders of the final jar from last year, when DPaul and I worked with our friends Nick and Russ to process and pressure-can 80 lbs of fresh tomatoes into six gallons of marinara sauce. I guess this year we’ll have to do 160 lbs to make it through a whole year. Maybe not.
Maccheroni e melanzane (bucatini and eggplant)
Adapted from The Best of Gourmet: The World at Your Fingertips
2-3 eggplants (not Asian)
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1 lb bucatini or perciatelli
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
several cloves garlic
2 c. plus 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Mince the onion and a few cloves of garlic. In a medium stock pot, heat 1-2 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the onion and saute until transparent and lightly golden, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add olive oil up to about 1/4″ deep in a large skillet. Lightly crush a
few cloves of garlic and add to the oil. Put the oil over medium heat
and simmer the garlic for a few minutes, just enough to infuse the oil. Cut the heat and let the garlic continue to infuse the oil for several minutes, up to two hours. Remove the garlic and transfer 1-2 Tbsp of the infused oil in a small bowl.
Trim the tops and tails of the eggplant. With a serrated knife or, better yet, a mandolin, slice the eggplant lengthwise in 1/4″ slices. Place in a large colander and toss with the salt, making sure to get salt on all the slices. Let stand for an hour in the sink or over a bowl. After an hour, gently squeeze the eggplant to remove any remaining bitter liquids and pat dry with paper towel.
Heat the infused oil over moderately high heat until shimmering but not smoking. (If you have an oil thermometer, 360º is what you want.) Slip in the slices of eggplant a few at a time, not crowding the pan, and fry until brown on both sides, about four minutes per batch. Remove and drain on a paper towel.
In a large stock pot, bring quite a lot of water to a rolling boil. Add a fistful of salt, then add the bucatini. Cook until al dente, then transfer to a colander and rinse with cold water. Place in a bowl and toss with the reserved garlic oil.
In a 9×13 baking dish, add a ladleful of the tomato sauce, spreading evenly over the bottom of the dish. On a working surface, lay out five bucatini, then cut them in thirds. Collect the strands into a bundle of 15, then lay them on one end of a slice of eggplant. Roll the eggplant around the bucatini and set it in the dish, seam side down. The dish should hold about 24 rolls snugly; you may end up with extra (I made 30 rolls total with bucatini to spare, as noted). Ladle a stripe of tomato sauce in a stripe along the top of the rolls. Cover in foil and bake in a 350º oven for 10-15 minutes, until heated through.
Ladle some sauce on a plate, then transfer two rolls on top. Top with grated cheese or coarse breadcrumbs. Serve immediately. Serves 12.
3 or so c. leftover bucatini or other long pasta
2 c. pasta sauce
Splash milk or cream
1 c. grated parmigiano
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Preheat the broiler. Put the eggs, milk and cheese with some salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk to combine. In a medium nonstick skillet, add the oil and heat over medium heat. Add the pasta and sauce, tossing until heated through and evenly distributed. Add the egg mixture, making sure it gets under and through the pasta. Cook on the stovetop until the eggs are set around the edges then place under the broiler for a few minutes, until the top is brown and puffy. Remove, allow to rest for a few minutes, then transfer to a dish. Cut and serve warm or room temperature.