I have, however, recently discovered the secret to cooking eggplant. This is it: cook the shit out of it. And then, cook it a little more. There is no such thing as al dente eggplant. If eggplant is not cooked all the way through it is rubbery and has very little taste. Cooked right, it is a smooth, silky pillow of flavor. Even then, not everyone will like it, I guess, but I think more people would appreciate its earthy flavor if it were properly cooked. It should be a heartbeat away from falling apart. That's how you know it is ready.
Some people may stay away from eggplant due to the belief that the peel and the seeds can be bitter, and you need to salt it, soak it and peel it before using, which is a lot of work. I am pleased to report that these days that is no longer necessary. I have never salted and soaked my eggplant, and I have not yet run into one that has a remotely bitter skin, or seeds. So that is no longer an excuse.
Eggplant is one of the clean 15, so I buy conventional from my local grocery store, rather than organic at Whole Foods. And they must be in season right now, because they are inexpensive and gorgeous. So I brought one home with me the other day, even though I was not sure how I wanted to use it. And in one of those serendipitous moments that occur now and then in life, I was watching Barefoot Contessa and her guest was Antonia Bellanca with a pasta with eggplant recipe. It looked like a great way to take advantage of the season's tomatoes and basil, so I decided to try it. Of course, I used it more as a guideline and fiddled with it along the way.
The result? Quite delicious. The eggplant is soft, smooth and silky, and adds an almost smoky tone to the sauce. I used whole wheat orecchiette, which was a good choice because the sauce filled the little hollows and clung beautifully. A crisp, crunchy green salad complements the smoothness of the sauce.
This actually made quite a bit more sauce than I needed, so I was able to freeze some of it in two pint-size jars. For one of those, I cooked up a cup of orzo and threw it into the sauce (which I heated in a 3-quart saucepan), and then added 1/4 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. I added more cheese for garnish, and sprinkled some fresh basil on top as well. (If the cheese looks a little funky, chalk it up to my mini food-processer. The blade was slightly angled and it clumped more than grated. Another reason why I usually grate it, but I was feeling lazy. I will remember this the next time I decide to grate my cheese in the processor.)
If you're tired of your same old pasta sauce, or have been relying on jars lately, give this a try. (And much as I am plugging the eggplant here, it would actually work with any vegetable.)
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes
PASTA WITH EGGPLANT AND TOMATO SAUCE
Makes 4-6 servings
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 medium eggplant, chopped
1/4 cup marsala or chianti or other red wine
4 large medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, liquids strained from seeds and pulp
(or 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved)
1 lb dried short pasta (orecchiette, farfalle, rotini, cavatappi, etc.)
1/4 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped (or 1 Tbsp dried), plus more for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
Grated Parmagiana Reggiano, for topping
Heat oil and butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until just translucent, then add eggplant and cook for another 2 minutes, until eggplant just begins to soften. Add the liquid from the tomatoes. Cover the skillet and lower the heat. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the eggplant has softened. Add the garlic and the tomatoes and season to taste with the salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the eggplant is well cooked and the tomatoes have broken down, another 20 to 30 minutes. Cook longer if needed, to make sure the eggplant is thoroughly cooked.
Cook the pasta 2 minutes less time than is indicated on the package instructions. Reserve a cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and add it to the skillet. Combine with the sauce and cook for another 2 minutes, to let the flavors blend and to finish cooking the pasta.
Remove from the heat and stir in the basil and the mozarella. Stir well to melt the cheese.
Sprinkle Parmagiana Reggiano over the top and add fresh basil for garnish.
Adapted from Antonia Bellanca's Pasta alle Melenzana recipe, as shown on "Barefoot Contessa," Episode: Italian Old and New.
Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (www.mountain-software.com)