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Rachael received many thoughtful letters and gifts while taping the Rachael Ray show from her home in upstate New York. One viewer from West Virginia named Andrew sent her a cookbook filled with all of Rach's recipes—including this one—that he made over the last year and a half. She was so moved by Andrew's book, My Pandemic in Meals, and the letter that accompanied it, that she invited him to be on the show, where he prepared the pasta.
The sauce gets its pumped-up flavors from a combination of semi-dried tomatoes, sundried tomato paste, sweet vermouth and spicy Calabrian chile paste, one of Rach's favorite go-to ingredients.
Excerpted from This Must Be the Place by Rachael Ray. Copyright © 2021 by Rachael Ray. Used with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel half of the skin off the eggplant in long strips, leaving a strip of skin between peeled sections. (The eggplant will look striped). Trim the top and bottom off the eggplant. Slice the eggplant lengthwise into ¾- to ½-inch-thick planks, then cut the planks into 2-inch-wide strips. Salt the eggplant and arrange in a single layer between two kitchen towels. Fold the towel up and weight with a heavy skillet to press the moisture out of the eggplant. Let sit for 15 to 20 minutes.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
In a deep skillet, heat 2 tablespoons EVOO, two turns of the pan, over medium. Add the garlic and swirl for a minute. Stir in the chile paste, then stir in the vermouth and semi-dried tomatoes. Return to a simmer over medium and let cook until alcohol cooks off, about 2 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, break up the tomatoes, then stir in the passata and basil. Bring the mixture to a bubble over medium-high, then lower the heat to medium-low and let the sauce simmer, stirring occasionally, while you cook the eggplant.
In a large nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 5 tablespoons EVOO, five turns of the pan, over medium to medium-high. Add the eggplant and cook until brown on both sides, 6 to 8 minutes per side.
While the eggplant cooks, salt the boiling water, add the pasta, and cook for 1 minute less than the package directions for al dente. Before draining, scoop out ½ to ¾ cup of the starchy cooking water, then drain the pasta.
Add the pasta and eggplant to the sauce, adding the pasta cooking water as needed to keep the pasta moist and emulsify the sauce. Season with salt. Top the pasta with cheese and parsley and/or mint.