For awhile, purple was my favorite color when I was little. It didn’t matter what shade it was– anything from the palest lavender to the deepest, almost black plum would do. So perhaps it was a mistake for my mother to let me choose the color of the carpeting for the house my parents had built when I was 7-years-old. I looked at the carpet samples in front of me for all of a minute before honing in on the one sample that was even remotely purple. It was a sort of ruddy, wine colored purple which was primarily problematic to me, with the critical eye of an adult, since it meant that very few colors for our furniture would go with it, trying to avoid anything that clashed or would be too dark. Yes, I’m thinking of that light pink sofa set in the living room. Did I mention that this carpeting went from wall to wall with the exception of the hardwood floor of the family room, the tile of the kitchen, and the bright white carpet of my parents’ bedroom? Oooh… white carpeting– maybe the purple wasn’t such a bad choice after all.
Perhaps the love of purple is the reason why I liked eggplant so much when other children (and adults) seem to reject it. One summer, when I was 13 or 14 and my brother was home from college, I remember how my mother suddenly declared that we would be responsible for cooking one meal per week. I was up for the challenge and rather enjoyed flipping through my parents’ myriad cookbooks to figure out what I would make. I vaguely remember that one of the first meals that either my brother or I made (or maybe we made this together) was a pasta dish filled with a small dice of caramelized eggplant.
A version of that dish that I have come to love in recent years is a baked rigatoni with bits of crumbled Italian sausage and chunks of eggplant rendered a bit creamy in texture from cooking in tons of olive oil. And there in lies the rub– I love eggplant, but I hate cooking it. When I first cooked eggplant as a young adolescent, I was fascinated by seeing how quickly eggplant soaks up oil; as an adult, not so much. I wanted to figure out a way that I could make this rigatoni dish without the splatter and massive absorption of hot oil.
The solution came to me after reading post in a food blog from a local writer. The author talked about how her favorite pizza sauce of late was made from oven roasted eggplant which was then mixed with tomatoes. Brilliant! I loved how I could cook the eggplant in the oven rather than having to hover over a hot saute pan. So I split an eggplant in half, brushed a foil lined baking sheet with olive oil and set the eggplant cut-side down. When the eggplant came out of the oven, the flesh was soft and lightly caramelized. I blitzed it in the food processor until it was a silky puree then added it to the tomato sauce that I had simmering on the stove. The sauce was slightly sweet from carrot and the eggplant, but the eggplant also added a faintly nutty background and creamy texture which was a nice contrast to the acid of the tomatoes. The only thing that made this even better was how the sauce blended with pillowy soft pools of ricotta and strings of melted mozzarella after baking in the oven. If you’re not an eggplant fan, this might change your mind!
Note: Keep this vegetarian by leaving out the sausage. Although I do admit that when I did this, I wasn’t as satisfied with the flavor of the pasta as a whole– the sauce itself was still delicious though!
- 1 large eggplant
- olive oil
- 13.3 oz hot Italian sausage
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 5 small carrots or 2 medium ones, chopped
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 medium celery stalks, chopped
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 28oz can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp fennel seed, light crushed
- 1 lb rigatoni
- 1.5 cups part-skim ricotta
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, chiffonade
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella
- salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and lightly brush it with olive oil. Split the eggplant lengthwise and place the halves cut-side down on the baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the skin puckers and the flesh is soft. Remove from oven and let cool for a little bit.
In a large Dutch oven, heat about 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Crumble in the sausage and cook until browned, about 5-7 minutes. In the bowl of a food processor, add the onion, garlic, carrot, and celery and process until you have a fine grind of all the vegetables. Add this to the pot and let cook for 3-4 minutes or until the vegetable mix has softened. Deglaze the pot with the white wine, scraping any brown bits off the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. When the wine has evaporated, mix in 2 tbsp of tomato paste and 2 tbsp butter. Carefully add in the tomatoes as they can spatter when they hit the heat. Stir in the oregano, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to medium low or until it gently simmers.
Scoop out the flesh of the eggplant into the food processor bowl. Make sure to include any juices that may have been released while the eggplant was cooling. Add about 1 tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper. Puree until smooth. Mix this into the tomato sauce and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer sauce for at least 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cook pasta a minute or two shy of the package directions, drain and set aside. While pasta cooks, mix together in a medium bowl the ricotta, parmesan, basil, and egg. Mix the pasta into the tomato and eggplant sauce. In a large 13 x 9 or 3 quart baking dish, add half of the pasta mixture. Dot the pasta with the ricotta mixture by the tablespoon. Cover with the remaining pasta and rain down the shredded mozzarella. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the pasta is bubbling.
CSA Count: 4
Carrots, celery, onion, garlic