I like to think of Italian pasta sauces as branches on a family tree, all of them converging on a handful of foundational sauces made from the most basic ingredients—tomato, butter, and olive oil. I've written about this taxonomy of mine before, when I described pasta al limone as nothing more than a classic fettuccine Alfredo with lemon added.
Today, I'm sharing another interesting pasta-sauce variant, rigatoni con pesce spada e melanzane (rigatoni with swordfish and eggplant). It's a classic Sicilian pasta dish, and at its heart, it's nothing more than Sicilian pasta alla norma, with the swordfish taking the place of the ricotta salata.
I should be clear: I don't mean that rigatoni with swordfish is a direct descendant of pasta alla norma, not in any literal historical sense. I have no idea whether it was Giuseppe who thought to hold the ricotta salata and add swordfish instead, or whether it was Maria who decided she didn't want fish one day and grabbed the cheese for a change. Or maybe they have completely unrelated origins. Regardless, in structure and appearance, there's more in common than not.
However it happened, pasta with swordfish and eggplant is a beautiful summer dish—one that's just hearty enough, but not so heavy that you wouldn't want to eat it on a hot day. It's also an easy and quick one that comes together in just a little longer than it takes to boil the pasta, so you can spend minimal time in the kitchen.
How to Make Rigatoni Con Pesce Spada e Melanzane: Step by Step
Step 1: Fry the Eggplant
First up, we fry the eggplant in olive oil until it's golden. Some people insist on salting the eggplant first to drain away some of its bitter juices, but that's something I do only with older eggplants that have large seeds. In the summer, which is when eggplant is in season, most eggplants have smaller, less developed seeds, and less bitterness overall—at least, as long as you're buying from a trusted stand at a farmers market or other local source.
As soon as it's done, I transfer the eggplant to paper towels to drain, using a slotted spoon so that some olive oil remains in the skillet.
Step 2: Infuse Oil With Garlic
Next, I drop a clove of garlic into the oil and let it gently sizzle for a few minutes, just to infuse some of its flavor into the mix.
This isn't generally a dish that's heavy on garlic (though, of course, it's entirely your prerogative if you want to make it one), so after the garlic has turned golden and given up a bit of its flavor to the oil, it's time to take it out.
Step 3: Add Swordfish and Cook
Into the pan goes the swordfish, which I cook only enough to sear it slightly. A light amount of browning will deepen the flavor of the dish, but you have to be careful—the swordfish will quickly overcook, so it's better to cut your losses after a minute or two and move on to the next step, rather than insisting on deep color.
Step 4: Add Tomatoes, Wine, and Herbs
Now it's time to finish the sauce. In go the tomatoes—cherry or other small tomatoes work well here—followed by a glug of dry white wine. The whole thing then simmers until some of the raw-alcohol smell of the wine has cooked off. I like to grab a wooden spoon and break up some of the fish pieces a little bit here, since I find the broken chunks and shards more enjoyable than perfect cubes when it's tossed with the pasta.
Fresh mint, or a mixture of mint and oregano, adds an herbal layer to round things out. The herb traditionally used here is one called nepitella (which sometimes goes by the name mentuccia in Italy), but that's next to impossible to find in the States. Mixing mint with oregano comes close to approximating its menthol-woodsy flavor.
Step 5: Add Eggplant, Then Finish
At this point, the eggplant can go back into the pan, and the sauce is ready for the pasta. Add the rigatoni to the pan, tossing it with the sauce and some of the pasta water, until a silky sauce clings to everything.
Perhaps most importantly, just before serving, rain a generous amount of fresh olive oil down onto the pasta to bump up the flavor and add a glistening shine.
Of course, as with everything in a dish this simple, success is tied to quality: Bad supermarket olive oil, out-of-season tomatoes, and tired herbs will leave you with a shadow version of what this dish should be. So treat yourself with the good stuff. Not only do you deserve a better dish, you also deserve to not have your time wasted—after all, there's a whole family tree of other pasta sauces left to explore.