Eggplants are inherently funny little guys. They grow in the garden along with all the other squash-like things — think zucchinis, summer squash, cucumbers and the like — but they’re slightly stranger, quite a bit tougher and decidedly less popular because they look a bit too different. Actually they remind me of little Rudolph at the beginning of the old claymation movie, when the other reindeer tease him after that phony black nose cover he was sporting falls off during flying lessons. Sure, you could cover up an eggplant in green and try to pass it off as a mighty fat zucchini, but in the end, the truth comes out. The phony nose pops off, and all the other veggies are laughing at the big purple guy that nobody understands.
OK, maybe that analogy goes a little too far (yes, I realize the other garden-dwellers are not really making fun of the eggplant), but I do think there’s something to be said for learning to cook with some of summer’s less popular fare. Actually, I think most people really want to like eggplant; I mean, how often do we get the chance to eat something purple that doesn’t include a shot of Red #4 and Blue #2? But in the wonderful world of eggplant, it’s important to remember that, even when cooked properly, they aren’t supposed to taste like a purple version of zucchini. They are supposed to taste like eggplant. The trick is teaching your taste buds to appreciate them for exactly who they are.
My grandparents gave us a few eggplants from their garden last week, so I went in search of a recipe to try. This pasta dish from Real Simple was exactly what I was looking for on a hot summer day. Start to finish, the meal took about 30 minutes to throw together, which is especially handy considering how little time one wants to stand by a piping hot stove when it’s hot enough to grill a sandwich on the sidewalk. Yep, when it comes to summertime dinners, I like to take the fresh and fast approach. And the bonus was I got to use those lovely eggplants in a dish they could be proud of: on a bed of hot pasta, next to their pal the spinach, sprinkled with a healthy dose of Parmesan. Woo to the hoo for that.
Fettuccine with Parmesan, Spinach and Sautéed Eggplant
Adapted from Real Simple (July 2011)
• 2 small eggplants, sliced into ½-inch slices, then bite-sized pieces
• 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
• kosher salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• ¼ teaspoon onion powder
• 12 to 15 ounces whole-wheat fettuccine
• 6 cups fresh baby spinach (about 5 ounces)
• 2 to 3 teaspoons red wine vinegar (I added a little extra because we tend to like things zippy.)
• 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and warm over medium heat. Add the eggplant, about ¼ teaspoon black pepper, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt and onion powder. Mix well, then allow eggplant to sauté until softened, about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on how big your eggplant pieces are (they’ll start to turn a little translucent when they’re done).Remove from heat, transfer to a bowl, and set aside.
In the meantime, cook the fettuccine according to package directions. Reserve ½ cup of the cooking water, then drain the fettuccine and return it to the pot.
Add the eggplant, spinach, vinegar, ¼ cup of the reserved cooking water, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper to the fettuccine, and toss to combine (if the pasta still seems too dry, add a bit more of the cooking water). Serve topped with fresh Parmesan, red pepper and a dot of additional oil.
How do you feel about eggplant? Love it or hate it? How do you prepare it? Is there another misunderstood produce that you’re keen on? Let’s hear it!