Being Italian, with all of its associations to food and pasta in particular, can sometimes be quite a liability. When it doesn’t generate a ‘You’re from Italy?! Oh, I love everything about it…especially the pasta!’-type veneration, it flirts heavily with the opposite end of the spectrum:
‘I enjoyed going to the museums when I visited, but I gained 15 pounds from eating all that pasta!’
‘All I saw in Italy were skinny, well-dressed people…you’d think everyone would be fat given all the pasta they eat.’
‘I don’t care much for Italian food. All that pasta…I’d rather eat something that’s more nutritious and that doesn’t make me gain weight.’
I could point out, in those moments, that most often it’s what people put on top of their pasta (rich, cheesy Alfredo, anyone?) and the large servings they consume that are the culprits. Instead, I smile and quickly change the topic of conversation, thereby sparing myself the need to take blood pressure medication. Inside, though, I feel like a big knot of twisting spaghetti that’s been hurt in the middle of its feelings.
Pasta – or more precisely, the carbohydrate – is being egregiously maligned these days, very similarly to how fats like oil, butter and bacon were disparaged not too long ago. (Nutritionists and governmental agencies, by the way, have since back-paddled on fats being the grim reaper of healthy diets.) Diet programs like Atkins, Ketogenic, Paleo, Primal Blueprint, and Zero Carb now abound, and they all revolve around significantly reducing carbs from daily diets.
While I commend these programs for steering people back to whole foods and away from nutritionally vacuous processed foods, I wonder if it’s necessary to denigrate foods like pasta in the process. Pasta, after all, is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which provide a slow release of energy. It is also low in sodium, cholesterol-free, and provides several essential nutrients, including folic acid, several B-vitamins, and iron.
Perhaps I am sensitive on the subject because I too have struggled with how to integrate pasta in my own fairly healthy diet. While I am by no means a nutritionist, I started reading books on the subject in my mid-20s just ‘for fun,’ and have amassed a good bit of knowledge throughout the years. I know that foods like sweet potatoes, quinoa and brown rice offer more nutrition than traditional white pasta. For years making pleasantly chewy spaghetti with salmon, leeks & feta or orecchiette with broccoli rabe & sausage meatballs created all sorts of mixed emotions in me, because you can’t unknow what you know, you know? I felt as though I was betraying everything I had learned every time I set a pot of water to boil and got out some rigatoni from the cupboard.
I persevered in this state of distressed pasta eating mostly because I couldn’t wrap my mind around a life without the soothing companionship of a bowl of linguini. Giving it up was clearly out of the question. The thought never came up. Not even once. Nevertheless I worried. I asked myself whether I was nutritionally shortchanging myself, and eventually my family when I came into one, in the process. I was in a bit of a conundrum.
The solution, although quite obvious I suppose, found me one day…over a bowl of pasta with crispy eggplant balls, ricotta & oregano. Sure, I reasoned, if I make pasta just part of the dish by fortifying it with other nutritional foods, then I can kill two birds with one stone, have my cake and eat it too, and call it a day (have I forgotten any other helpful idioms?).
By accompanying pasta with a variety of flavors, textures and aromas, you can keep every pasta meal nourishing, sustaining and tasty. Now, if it would just stop those comments…
Making pasta with crispy eggplant balls, ricotta & oregano
To prepare, start by removing the skin from the 4 lbs. of ripe plum tomatoes by bringing a medium pot filled with water to a boil. Plunge tomatoes in water and boil for 1 minute. Allow to cool and remove the skin. Quarter each tomato, remove seeds and then roughly chop. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Toss 2 eggplants, which have been peeled and cut into 3/4 –inch cubes,
And 6 unpeeled cloves of garlic with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Spread out eggplant cubes on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper and put in oven. Lower temperature to 400°F and roast, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 35 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper, mixing well. Once cooled, roughly chop.
To make the sauce, heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 thinly sliced medium onion, a pinch of salt, and ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the prepped chopped tomatoes, two pinches of salt, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Bring to a boil and then lower the flame to simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes.
Make the eggplant balls by combining the chopped eggplant, 1 ½ cups of Panko breadcrumbs, 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, 3 tablespoons of minced parsley, 2 large eggs, 2 peeled and minced garlic cloves, and salt and pepper to taste.
Mix well and then roll the eggplant mixture into small balls that are about ¾-inch in diameter.
Place ¾ cup of panko breadcrumbs in a small bowl and roll each ball in the breadcrumbs to coat evenly. Set the coated balls on a clean tray.
Pour enough frying oil into a 10-inch skillet to cover the bottom by a ½ inch. Turn the heat to medium and when the oil begins to shimmer but is not yet smoking, individually add the balls. Work in batches to prevent overcrowding.
Fry, turning over gently from time to time, until browned all over, about 3 minutes total. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Set aside and tent with aluminum foil to keep them warm.
Cook ¾ lb. of pasta (fusilli or penne work really well) in a large pot of boiling salted water according to package instructions. Adding 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt for every 4 cups of pasta water is the general rule. Drain pasta well and return to pot. Add 2/3 of the sauce and mix well, gently reheating if necessary. Top each serving with a little more tomato sauce, a few small spoonfuls of ricotta, and 6 eggplant balls. Top with a sprinkling of chopped fresh oregano leaves. Makes 4 servings.