EVOO, for drizzling
1 medium eggplant
Salt and pepper
1 head garlic, top cut off to expose the cloves
2 1/2 to 3 pounds whole plum and/or vine-ripened tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 or 2 small sweet red peppers (bell peppers or frying peppers), roasted and peeled (see Note)
A few fresh basil leaves
1 cup cow or sheep’s milk ricotta cheese
1 to 1 1/2 pounds rigatoni
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella (I used fior di latte), sliced into half-moons
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Drizzle a large baking sheet with EVOO. Halve the eggplant lengthwise and score the flesh in a crosshatch pattern, each row 1 inch apart; score the edges near the skin. Season the eggplant with salt and pepper and place it cut side down on the baking sheet. Drizzle the garlic with some EVOO and season with salt and pepper. Wrap in foil. Place the tomatoes on a second baking sheet and drizzle with some EVOO. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the thyme. All those guys go into the oven. Roast the eggplant about 25 minutes, the tomatoes about 35 minutes, and the garlic about 40 minutes. If you’re roasting the vegetables for the sauce ahead of time, you can turn off the oven now. But if you’re continuing on with the dish, leave the oven on but turn the temp down to 350°F.
Heat a little drizzle of EVOO in a skillet. Add the onion and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Sweat the onion out over low to medium-low heat until very soft, 12 to 15 minutes.
When it’s cool enough to handle, squish the roasted garlic out of its skins into a food processor. Add the roasted tomatoes, the flesh of the roasted eggplant (scraped out of the skin), the roasted peppers, and the basil. Discard the bay leaf and add the onion to the roasted vegetables. Add the ricotta cheese and process that into a thick, light pink sauce.
If you roasted the vegetables ahead of time, preheat the oven to 350°F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water and cook the pasta al dente.
Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce. Transfer the pasta to a shallow 2- to 3-quart baking dish. Top with the mozzarella and sprinkle the Parm all over the top. Bake hot and golden on top, about 20 minutes.
To peel the peppers, char them over an open flame on the stovetop or under the broiler on high (do this before you need the oven for the rest of the dish). When blackened, place in a bowl, cover, and let cool. Remove the blackened skins with a paper towel. Halve and seed the peppers.