Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Eggplant pasta, California Style

Pasta with fried eggplant and tomato sauce is a big favorite in the
south of Italy. Traditionally, you will cube, flour and fry the eggplant, then mix with tomato sauce (however you like that made) and mozzarella. It's a wonderful dish, if a bit heavy.

So, when I bought my first eggplant of the summer last Saturday at the market, I though about this dish. For about five minutes. Aside from the fact that it is a bit on the rich side, it does take a bit long to make, especially right now that I am out of my yearly stock of frozen tomato sauce. So I ended up making a quick version of this last night - this is almost a "do it while the water boils and the pasta cooks" recipe.

For a pound/500gr pack
of pasta...

four eggplant of the mediterranean variety, but not huge ones. When I slice them in rounds, from the top, most slices came out in "triangles" at no more than an inch in size. Basically, you're cubing this eggplant into pieces of no more than an inch on any side.
a basket of cherry tomatoes
couple of good size cloves of garlic
olive oil
favorite herbs and spices

well, let's start with that. I put the water on to boil, and heated a 12" nonstick pan on a medium to high flame, poured a generous amount of oil, to cover the bottom of the pan, and placed half of the eggplant in the pan to saute. I did this in two turns, since I want all pieces to come into contact with the pan at any one time. Be careful when putting the eggplant in - I managed to splash some hot oil on my hands, and the usual round of italian (no, tuscan) expletives came into play.

I salted the eggplant, to taste, tossed to coat all the pieces with at least some oil, and it almost immediately got soaked up. I then let it cook, turning regularly, and added some thyme. Meantime I finely minced two cloves of garlic, and cubed the rest of the eggplant. After about ten minutes, the eggplant's looking good, starting to let some of the oil out again, and I added half the garlic in. Cook for another couple of minutes, turn off, remove the eggplant, top up oil as needed and repeat for the second batch of eggplant. By the time both are done, your water will be at a rolling boil, your eggplant all cooked, and we're ready to put the pasta in.

While the pasta is cooking, halve all the cherry tomatoes. About four/five minutes before the end, add more olive oil to the re-heated eggplant pan, medium heat, and throw the cherry tomatoes in for about two minutes. You don't want them to break down completely - just to soften, and release some of their liquid into the oil - good pasta sauce. At this point, you could add some chili powder or peppers, or even some thinly sliced or chopped jalapeno. Whatever you like for heat.

Throw all the eggplant in after a couple of minutes, to reheat it, and proceed to drain the pasta, not too vigorously, you want some of the water to stay with the pasta, it will help build the sauce. Put the pasta in the eggplant pan, and toss, while keeping a very low heat.

Now, you could leave it at this, dust with your favorite hard cheese, and have a pretty good meal. Traditionally, you add mozzarella - you could certainly add a half pound of that if you had it around. My wife rightly pointed out that our buffalo mozzarella would be wasted in this dish, as the mozzarella's a little too delicate to stand up to the flavors, and you know, using buffalo mozzarella for texture's a bit of an extravagance.

So, we went with some fontina (actually, Bra Tenero from our favorite cheese shop), about a quarter of a pound, frozen for about twenty minutes, then grated. Once you've mixed the pasta as above, turn off the heat, add the cheese and mix again. You actually end up with a lot less cheese than in a standard mozzarella recipe, it is less noticeable to the sight (mozzarella would naturally thread itself throughout the dish), but the flavor the cheese imparts is more pronounced and I think overall much better. You can still add some grated cheese if desired. This certainly was a big hit last night, and I predict we'll be eating a lot of eggplant this way all summer.

As soon as the San Marzano start rolling into the market, I'll get to making tomato sauces again and try this
with the sauce instead of the cherry tomatoes. Still, with the cherry tomatoes as good as they are right now, this is a wonderful dinner, and really pretty much doable while you boil and cook the pasta.