In the last week, I totaled my car*, almost gave myself a concussion by walking against a rather substantial tree branch and went all Lady Macbeth in my white silk nightgown this morning after slicing open my foot on a piece of glass in my kitchen (apparently, I must learn the hard way that you should never attempt to wipe down your counters before having your caffeinated morning beverage). Who knew a quarter-inch nick on a foot could bleed so much? I kind of wish I'd had the presence of mind to photograph the blood spatters on our white tile floor just now. They looked rather artful.
Let's not even talk about how I managed to bust my iPhone on Monday or about the fact that I thought I'd lost all my identifying documents earlier this week. Not even kidding. Is Mercury in retrograde or something? Am I supposed to be thinking of something I'm not? Or am I just on the rather klutzier side of humanity?
What I think is really going on is that the universe was balancing itself out in anticipation of my dinner last night. All this mayhem and in the midst of it, I had a stroke of very good fortune: discovering an eggplant sauce for my spaghetti that I loved so much I wanted to eat it with a spoon, out of the pan, with nary a taste for anyone else, spaghetti be damned. This is not to say that losing the car was worth the sauce, but it made the pain easier to bear. It really is something.
The sauce comes from the esteemed Mister Lam, rice whisperer and food writer extraordinaire (seriously, click over to his original recipe and feast on his words, would you?). Last year, when Gourmet folded and I, in a momentary sizzle of panic, printed out all the web-exclusive recipes from Gourmet.com, this recipe made it to the top of the stack, only to languish there as I packed up my life in New York and moved to Berlin. And truth be told, it would have languished there further if a certain visitor, sitting at my table last night and hungry for dinner, hadn't told me that it was one of her very favorite things to eat.
It is, in the grand tradition of humble Italian peasant food, a very ugly sauce. Gray, slippery and rather limp. You cook cubed eggplant and some garlic in olive oil, with the addition of some stock or water, until it goes all melty and soft and the fibers just sort of collapse underneath gentle pressure. It takes just 20 minutes, long enough to get started on setting the table, eating all the olives in your fridge or just having a drink to unwind from all the stress of your week, whether it involved car crashes and bleeding feet or not. Then, using a fork or a spoon or whatever you have around, you mash up the eggplant until it's, well, saucy. And to brighten up each spoon-, er, forkful, in goes some sliced basil and good dollop of minced sun-dried tomatoes. And salt. Don't forget the salt.
The noodles, chewy and slippery, curl around the pockets of sweet, savory eggplant, the basil snakes between each bite and a pop of tomato here and there makes the water run together in your mouth as you eat. You don't even need a grating of Parmigiano. You've got all you ever needed on your plate, right there.
Halfway through the cooking process, I realized that it was this very technique that kept me fed and happy years ago while living in Paris. Only instead of eggplants, I used zucchini - for a pea-green sauce as sweet as the day is long - or cauliflower. Both vegetables do stunningly well with long cooking times and a careful mashing, turning themselves into silky, toothsome sauces that you can brighten up with mint or parsley (for the zucchini) or a good grinding of hot red pepper flakes (for the cauliflower). Both do very well indeed with a judicious grating of Parmigiano on top.
In any case, it's a technique for your kitchen as indispensable as boiling eggs or mastering a very good, plain tomato sauce. Armed with just one eggplant, just a few handfuls of cauliflower florets or a zucchini or two, you can stew your way to spaghetti nirvana in the blink of an eye.
Did I mention the salt? Don't forget the salt. It's the difference between a sauce that makes you sit up and pay attention and a sauce that just hums quietly along instead of singing loud and clear.
One last thing: the recipe below says that a one-pound eggplant will be enough for a pound of spaghetti, but we ate far less spaghetti than that (190 grams for the two of us, actually) and while there was more sauce than any of my Italian family members would have deemed acceptable on our plates, you might want to adjust your sauce-to-noodle ratio as you see fit.
*As a result, I missed the Food Blogger Connect conference, which really was the worst luck of all. I'm sorry to have missed any of you intrepid readers who made it there!
Oh, and in completely unrelated news, The Wednesday Chef now has a Facebook page! Come on over, let's be friends.
Spaghetti with Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free! Sauce
Serves 3 or 4
1 pound eggplant, cut into ½ inch slices
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
2 springs thyme or oregano, chopped
1 cup chicken stock or water
2 tablespoons sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes, minced
6 leaves basil, sliced thinly
Salt and pepper
1 pound spaghetti
1. Lightly salt the slices of eggplant, stack them back together and let sit for 20 minutes.
2. Put the olive oil in a wide, heavy saucepan, add the garlic cloves, and set over low heat.
3. 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 the 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.
4. After about 20 minutes or so, the liquid in the eggplant pan should be mostly evaporated and the eggplant should be soft and melting. Mash it with a fork or spoon, and adjust the seasoning to taste.
5. Toss the eggplant purée with the spaghetti that you cooked al dente. Stir in the minced tomatoes and basil. You can gild the lily with drizzling on some more oil. Serve immediately.