I seem to be on somewhat of an eggplant binge. This will be my third post featuring eggplant in the past couple of weeks. But that's OK...it is, after all, eggplant season. From now until the end of September—and even into October if we are lucky—the market stalls will be filled with these beautiful oval globes (as well as an abundant supply of the more diminutive varieties). If you have never tried eggplant...or think you don't like it...today's post is for you. When smothered in a sunny pasta sauce of vine ripened tomatoes, alongside tender chunks of sweet bell peppers, eggplant is easy to love.
I have been making this pasta sauce from Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking for twenty years. It is one of my all time favorites and I am passing it along to you virtually unchanged from the original. This sauce is truly the essence of simplicity. Other than the three main ingredients (eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes) there are only two other ingredients—olive oil and hot pepper flakes. Even the method of preparation is simple: The eggplant is sautéed and removed from the pan.
Then the tomatoes are added to the still hot pan where they quickly reduce into a nicely concentrated pulpy sauce.
The eggplant is then returned to the pan along with diced bell peppers and pepper flakes. The whole thing then gently simmers until everything is just tender and the flavors are well blended—about an hour.
For a few years I made a more complicated version of this recipe that involved sweating the peppers with onion and garlic before adding the tomatoes and eggplant—more along the lines of a traditional tomato-based sauce. It just didn't make sense to me to stew the peppers in the sauce without sweating them in some olive oil first. Furthermore, it seemed to me that adding onions and garlic would add some nice depth, subtlety and sweetness. And I suppose it did add all of these things. But somehow the clean, vibrant summer flavors of the original dish were lost. As for my idea of sweating the peppers first, I came to appreciate the fact that the original method of gently cooking the raw peppers in a tomato-y bath yielded soft, tender peppers with no trace of toughness or bitterness. Truly sometimes things are best left just the way they are.
I have probably included this sauce in almost every summer pasta class I have ever taught. One year someone came up to me after a class on a totally different topic and said they wanted to let me know that they had taken my summer pasta class and that they were so glad that I had taught this particular sauce in that class. They then said that when they signed up, they thought this would be a dish they wouldn't like because they didn't like eggplant. They had gone ahead and taken the class because they had known they would get four other good recipes to make up for it. As it turned out, the eggplant sauce was their favorite. So for all of you out there who think you don't like eggplant, if you have read this far, I encourage you to give this recipe a try. You will be amazed at how good it is.
Pasta with Eggplant, Tomato & Peppers
4 T. olive oil
1 large eggplant (about 1 lb.), cut into 3/4-inch pieces
3 large or 4 medium red bell peppers, cored, seeded & cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 lbs. tomatoes, peeled, seeded & chopped—juices reserved
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 lb. Fusilli, Penne or Rigatoni
Heat 2 T. of oil in a large, deep-sided skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the eggplant, and cook for several minutes, stirring and turning occasionally, until browned on all sides. If the eggplant is sticking, or seems a bit dry, add a bit of the remaining 2 T. of olive oil.
When the eggplant is golden all over, remove to a plate and add the remaining oil to the pan. Add the tomatoes along with their juices. Because the pan is still quite hot from sautéing the eggplant, the tomatoes will bubble furiously when they hit the pan. This is as it should be, you are trying to concentrate the tomatoes a bit. Cook the tomatoes—regulating the heat to maintain a rapid simmer—stirring from time to time, until thickened—about 10 minutes. Return the eggplant to the pan along with the bell peppers. Stir and season to taste with the hot pepper flake, salt & pepper. Cover and simmer gently until the peppers are tender, the flavors have blended and the sauce is no longer brilliant red in color—about 1 hour.
Just before the sauce is ready, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2-3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well. Add some pasta water if the sauce seems dry. If you like, stir in some extra virgin olive oil to enrich the sauce and add a nice sheen. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.
(Recipe adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells)