Rigatoni with Fried Eggplant, Tomato and Olives

1 pound dark purple, slender Italian or Japanese eggplants
5 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup diced celery
2/3 cup diced yellow onion
1-1/2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded [see below], then chopped
scant 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 pound dried rigatoni
approximately 30 brine-cured green olives, preferably Picholine, pitted and coarsely chopped
3/4 cup freshly grated ricotta salata or pecorino romano cheese
2 tablespoons minced parsley
4 cloves garlic, minced

Remove stem ends of eggplants. Cut eggplants in half lengthwise, then cut eggplant into neat 1/2-inch cubes. Sprinkle with 1-1/2 teaspoons salt and put the cubes in a sieve set over a bowl to drain for 1 hour. Stir them with your hands once or twice during that time. Pat dry with paper towels (no need to rinse).

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 12- to 14-inch skillet over moderately high heat. Add eggplant cubes and sauté until they are nicely browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. (You can do this in two batches in a smaller skillet if necessary.) Transfer with a slotted spoon to several thicknesses of paper towels to drain.

Reduce heat to moderately low. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to skillet along with celery and onion. Sauté until softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute to release its fragrance. Add tomatoes and hot red pepper flakes. Raise heat to moderately high and cook, stirring often, until tomatoes have collapsed and formed a thick sauce, 15 or 20 minutes. Add water as necessary to keep sauce from sticking and to bring it to the desired consistency. Season to taste with salt.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Just before pasta is ready, stir eggplant and olives into tomato sauce and reheat gently over low heat. Drain pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Transfer pasta to a large warm bowl. Add contents of skillet and toss to coat, adding a little of the reserved cooking water if needed to help the sauce coat the pasta nicely. Serve immediately on warm dishes, topping each portion with cheese and parsley.

Peel and Seed Tomatoes Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a bowl three-fourths full with ice water. Cut a skin-deep X in the rounded end of each tomato. Place tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Very ripe tomatoes will need even less time; not-quite-ripe tomatoes a few seconds longer. If you have a lot of tomatoes to peel, do them in batches so the water remains at a boil. Using a slotted spoon, transfer blanched tomatoes to ice water. When cool, slip off the skin from each tomato; it should peel back easily from the X. Core tomatoes. Halve plum tomatoes through the stem; halve slicing tomatoes horizontally. Use your fingers to pull the seeds and juice out of the seed cavities.

Serves 4

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