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 horrifyingly bitter if you get it when it’s overmature and seedy. It can soak up grease with the gusto of a ShamWow. And its texture can be so weird: A good quick sear and it can be squeaky, almost springy, like mushrooms. Two seconds later, it can fall apart and get stringy and ripped up as you try, desperately, to pull it out of the pan in one piece.
Now, I will make a confession about my ballyhooed ratatouille: I only put the eggplant in there because I fear it wouldn’t be ratatouille without it, and it would sound a lot less sexy to talk about my amazing roasted zucchini and tomato paste. And so every summer, I fall into a stressful ritual of pulling hot sheet trays out of the oven, hoping I can gently remove beautiful, browned eggplant dice and fold them into the rest of the mix without mashing them into pulp.
But the oily, gray, lifeless, and utterly delicious eggplant I had at a neighborhood place in Rome inspired me to rethink 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 excited as me
1 pound eggplant, cut into ½ inch slices
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
1 cup liquid – Stock? Water? Whatever. I had some water leftover from cooking lentils, so I used that.
2 tablespoons dried tomatoes, minced – sundried? Ovendried? Your call. What, you don’t have any? Let’s talk*
6 leaves basil, chiffonaded
Salt and pepper
1 pound long pasta – spaghetti, linguini, whatever floats your boat
• Lightly salt the slices of eggplant, stack them back together and let it all hang out for about 20 minutes. This will season it 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 it’s not bitter. But you know how I got mine without being bitter? I asked the farmer that sold it to me. He’s an honest guy. Incidentally, this was in south Mississippi, where it’s hot, like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot. Probably if you’re in a cooler place you won’t have farmers selling their eggplant for a little bit quite yet. Maybe that’ll give you time to do the emotional work of readjusting your eggplant relationship.
• 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 nothing happens for a while.
• 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 up the heat a little bit to medium high and add your 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.
• Meanwhile, bring water to boil, salt it, and cook your pasta.
• Check on your eggplant. Is the liquid mostly absorbed or reduced? It should be 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.
• 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.
* Ok, I’m going to keep this short, because it’s the easiest thing in the world. Slice your tomatoes about a quarteer-inch thick. Lay them out, on one layer, on a tray and salt them lightly and drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil. Pop them into a 200 degree 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.