No, really. Turn off your computer, put on your shoes, and go to the store to buy some eggplant. You know you want to.
Eggplants are like reverse ugly ducklings. Find a farmer with several varieties of eggplant, you might well be overwhelmed: small, pea-sized green ones; big, nearly black American ones; skinny eggplants in shades of violet and fuschia, sometimes streaked with green or white; pristine white ones that finally explain how they might have gotten their name. Once cooked down to that velvety texture I love, however, even the prettiest specimen has faded to an unappealing grey-brown. Unless you take great pains to keep its shape, it will also slump into almost a paste. Luckily, it's much more delicious than it looks (and sounds).
I eat a lot of eggplant, especially in the hotter summer months, but it almost inevitably becomes baingan bharta. Smoky, creamy eggplant spiked with spices and cooled with mint and yoghurt is delicious, but what about the delicious but oh-so-unfashionable eggplant parmesan? What about Greek-style egpplant sandwiches, and ratatouille, and all the other recipes that I always forget about?
Just over a year ago, I saw a recipe that looked just about perfect. Francis Lam, food writer extraordinaire, fantastic chef, and person whose wisdom I'd very much like to tap, reposted a Gourmet article about eggplant pasta.
It was devilishly simple. Salt some eggplant, then cook it with olive oil and garlic until velvety soft. Mash it, toss it with sun-dried tomatoes and basil, and toss it with some spaghetti. It sounded delicious ... but still, when eggplants came into my home, I made more Indian food.
I may be a year late—as with so many aspects of my life, I am unfailingly uncool in the food world—but better late than never. I left Francis behind while I flipped through pages of Marcella and Giuliano Hazan's respective cookbooks, took a look in my refrigerator and my little patio garden, and came up with my own version. This pasta is relatively fast (I think it took me 45 minutes; with proper mise en place it would have been scarcely more than 30) and very forgiving; it would be good with any number of herbs, and even eggplant that's going slightly leathery in the crisper will make a fine meal.
Adapted from Francis Lam and Marcella Hazan
1 lb eggplant (I prefer a couple smaller Italian eggplants, but any variety will work)
½ sweet onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup water
2 plum tomatoes (peeled if desired)
pinch crushed red pepper
8 ounces spaghetti or linguine, or some similar skinny pasta
salt and pepper
a small handful parsley, chopped
If you don't like eggplant skin, peel half or all of the eggplants—although with this very soft recipe, I never bother. Slice the eggplant into ½ inch medallions and salt each layer; stack them up and set aside for about fifteen minutes.
Meanwhile, pour most of the olive oil into a 10-12 inch skillet. Add the sliced onion and peeled garlic and set over low heat until fragrant and just beginning to sizzle.
Squeeze the eggplant to expel some of the excess liquid (I do this sloppily, with my hands—it's just going to be mashed up anyway); chop the eggplant into medium chunks. Add it to the pan, stir well to coat, and increase the heat to medium-high. Chop up the tomatoes and add them to the mixture with the crushed red pepper. When the mixture is sizzling happily, add the water and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium and partially cover; ignore for about 20 minutes.
After about 10 minutes, set a pot of water to boil. Salt it and add the pasta. Cook until 1-2 minutes shy of al dente; drain, reserving ½ cup cooking water, then cover and set aside.
Return to you pasta. Using a fork, wooden spoon, or potato masher, bash it all up into a coarse purée; note that it will look kind of like baby food. If your pot is big enough, toss in the pasta; otherwise, toss the pasta and sauce in the pasta pot. Add about half of the pasta cooking water and toss it all together to coat the noodles; if it's very dry, add more water.
Serve topped with parsley (which does minimize the baby-food effect, if you care).
Serves 3 as a main or 4 as a side