Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
Salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Pinch of crushed red pepper
12 basil leaves, plus a few basil sprigs for garnish
4 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes with juice, fresh or canned
3 or 4 small eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound pasta, such as penne, rigatoncini or spaghetti
1 cup coarsely grated ricotta salata
1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade
Make a quick tomato sauce: Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
Stir in garlic, red pepper and basil leaves and cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, stir and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and let sauce simmer gently for 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside. (Sauce may be prepared up to 2 days in advance.)
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Turn heat to low and cover pot until it’s time to cook the pasta.
Put a wide cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil to coat surface of pan. When oil is wavy, test by adding a cube of eggplant. It should begin to sizzle and brown immediately. Fill the pan with a single layer of eggplant cubes. Turn eggplant with a spatula or tongs and brown nicely on all sides. Lower heat as necessary to maintain an even temperature; if the pan is too hot, the eggplant will burn.
Remove cooked eggplant to a plate and continue to fry remaining eggplant in batches, adding more oil as necessary. Season finished eggplant with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, roast the eggplant on a baking sheet at 400 degrees, lightly drizzled with oil, until cooked and nicely browned, about 20 minutes.)
To assemble and serve, boil pasta until al dente, leaving it a little firmer than normal. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer. Add eggplant to sauce and gently stir to combine. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water, then drain pasta and add to sauce. Using 2 wooden spoons or tongs, toss pasta and sauce, and let cook 1 minute more. Thin sauce if necessary with a little pasta cooking water.
Transfer to a warmed wide pasta bowl. Sprinkle with grated ricotta salata and bread crumbs. Garnish with torn or whole basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.