What eggplant really wants to be: Pasta sauce

I’ve always been wary of the Purple Monster, until I learned the most delicious and stress-free way to cook it


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Francis Lam
June 26, 2010 1:01am (UTC)

Luisa Weiss, who writes the fantastic Wednesday Chef blog, documents the cooking of recipes written by true luminaries. Through the vagaries of chance, mutual friends, and, probably, the wild spirit of openness engendered by living in Berlin, she recently cooked this old thing and loved it so much she made me think maybe I got something right after all.

A version of this story previously appeared on Gourmet.com.

Hey, is eggplant good for you? I hope so, because I just ate one the size of a chicken. Which was unusual for me, because while I respect eggplant, usually that respect runs more to the side of fear than it does of love.

It's not always easy to deal with, eggplant. It's a fussy creature, finicky and unpredictable. It can be nauseatingly bitter, it's overmature and seedy. It can soak up grease with the strength of a hundred potatoes (maybe instead of their failed "Junk Shot" strategy BP sould have gone for an Eggplant Shot). And its texture can be so weird: a good quick sear and it can be squeaky, almost springy like mushrooms. Or seconds later and it can fall apart, stringy and pathetic, as you try desperately to pull it out of the pan in one piece.

One of the things I'm proudest of in my life is the ratatouille I make, but maybe it's true that nothing good is pure, and here is a confession: I use eggplant in my ratatouille only because I fear it wouldn't technically be ratatouille without it, and it would sound a lot less sexy for me to talk about my excellent zucchini with tomato paste. And so every summer, I fall into a stressful ritual of pulling hot trays out of the oven, hoping I can scoop off beautiful, browned eggplant dice and fold them into the rest of the mix without mashing them into a disfigured pulp.

But last year, I ate the ugliest eggplant of my life at a little neighborhood restaurant in Italy, a truly homely specimen, the kind of vegetable that even tofu points and laughs at. But the oily, gray, lifeless, smushy lumps were utterly delicious, so much so that I had a revelation, about my treatment and relationship with the stuff. Why fight the eggplant and try to get neat, seared cubes? Let it be what it wants to be! Let it turn to mush! Let it soak up oil! Let us all be frank with ourselves.

Pasta With Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free! Puree

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a starter, or, like 1 if you're as into it as me

Ingredients

Eggplant pasta

  • 1 pound eggplant, cut into ½ inch slices (Bigger is ok)
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, lightly smashed (I mean just flatten them, don't take out your aggression on them)
  • 2 springs thyme or oregano, chopped, or a sprinkling of the dried stuff
  • 1 cup liquid -- stock? water? Whatever. I had some water leftover from cooking lentils, so I used that.
  • 2 tablespoons dried tomatoes, minced -- sun-dried? oven-dried? Your call. (See below)
  • 6 leaves basil, cut fine
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound long pasta -- spaghetti, linguini, whatever floats your boat

Oven-dried tomatoes

  • tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Directions

Eggplant Pasta

  1. Lightly salt the slices of eggplant, stack them back together and let them hang out for about 20 minutes. This will season them and water will drip out, allegedly removing the bitterness, if it's there. They also say to choose eggplants that are dense and heavy for their size to make sure they're not bitter. But you know how I got mine to not be bitter? I ask the person that sells them to me, which, for me, means that I have to buy my eggplants from farmers' markets. Maybe you don't have quite the same amount of emotional work to do in readjusting your eggplant relationship. I'm glad for you.
  2. Meanwhile, put the olive oil in a wide, heavy saucepan, add the garlic cloves, and set over low heat. You're just trying to get them friendly with one another, so don't worry if it just sits there and looks like nothing's happening.
  3. Dry off the eggplant, cut it into chunks. When you start hearing the garlic sizzle a little and can smell it, drop in your eggplant and stir to coat it all with oil. Turn the heat up to medium high, add thyme or oregano and stir. When the eggplant is turning translucent and softening, add the liquid, let it come to a boil, and turn it back down to medium-low. Let it bubble for a bit and cover it, leaving a crack for steam to escape. Stir once in a while so that the bottom doesn't stick.
  4. Meanwhile, bring water to boil, salt it, and cook your pasta.
  5. Check on your eggplant. Is the liquid mostly absorbed or reduced? It should after about 20 minutes or so. Does it look good and mashable? Great. Mash it up with a spoon, and adjust the seasoning to taste. Isn't it great? Silky smooth and garlicky and eggplanty and humming with oil? And totally stress-free! Amazing.
  6. Drain your perfect al dente pasta and toss with the eggplant puree. Stir in your minced tomatoes and basil and gild the lily with some more oil. Celebrate your new friendship.

Oven-dried tomatoes

  1. OK, I'm going to keep this short, because it's the easiest thing in the world. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Slice your tomatoes about a 1/4-inch thick. Lay them out, on one layer, on a tray, salt them lightly and drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil.
  2. Pop them into the oven and check on them after 2 hours, then every 15 minutes after that. You want them to be dried out, almost like fruit leather, but they're going to taste great -- they'll spark up anything with a punch of tartness, sweetness, and some real umami. It'll make so-so tomatoes great, and good tomatoes amazing. They'll last like this, wrapped up in the fridge, for weeks.

Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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