Lately I've been hooked on San Francisco's Alemany farmers market on Saturday mornings. You know how a lot of farmers markets act like they're about food, but they're mostly a social gathering? This one is anything but a place to hang out. There's no coffee stall, no pastries, no bluegrass quartet. Instead, everyone is there to do business. This is a market where produce moves.
Because farmers sell a lot of produce, they price things accordingly. Instead of $7 peaches, I load up on very fresh greens, heaps of eggplants, water spinach, Italian and Thai basil, and some of the sweetest strawberries I've had all year. I drag myself there before 7:30a.m. because, well, earlybird. I've gone three weekends in a row hunting down sour leaf, a popular Burmese ingredient that comes from hibiscus plants. It's sold by Laotian farmers, and two times out of three, it's been sold out by the time I've started making the rounds. Anyway, my sour leaf mission is part of a much larger story that has to do with writing the Burma Superstar Cookbook, and I'll get into that down the road when the book is closer to its release (this spring). For now, back to eggplant.
Eggplant may not be for everyone, but it's always been a favorite vegetable of mine. It's especially good to use in a summertime pasta sauce. This version is a take on what the English call spag bol—spaghetti bolognese. It’s not remotely Italian. (Backstory: in Italy, spaghetti is never be paired with bolognese. Spaghetti is a lean, dry extruded pasta, not a fresh, egg yolk-filled ribbony pasta, which is much better suited for rich bolognese. The “bol” in spag bol isn’t bolognese, either. Instead of a slow-simmered sauce of ground beef and pork cooked with barely any tomato, “bol” is a quick-and-dirty tomato sauce made with ground beef.)
I don't claim authenticity with any of this, but I will say that eggplant bolognese, egg-bol, is good. It’s comfort food to me in the way that mac and cheese is to others.
Making this pasta doesn't really require a recipe, but you can use this as a template to make your own. I've added ground lamb on occasion and fresh tomatoes on others, and these days, I'm more and more inclined not to use any cheese at all. So take it and run with it.
Serves about 4
one quick note: the key to even eggplant cooking -- and preventing the eggplant from sticking to the sauté pan -- is to use a generous tablespoon or two of olive oil when cooking each batch of diced eggplant. This is easy when the pan is hot. It also helps to salt the eggplant in advance so you can squeeze out extra water beforehand, allowing you to use less oil overall.
- 1 globe eggplant or 3 to 4 Japanese eggplants, cut into cubes
- olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves
- Red pepper flakes
- 1 cup marinara (make your own by simmering a can of San Marzano-style tomatoes with a little olive oil and smashed garlic)
- 12 ounces spaghetti or bucatini
- some freshly ground black pepper
- A block of firm grating cheese, like grana padano or Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
- Toasted almonds
- Mint or basil sprigs, coarsely chopped
Spread the eggplant on a towel and salt it with about a teaspoon or so of salt encourage the eggplant to release water. After 30 minutes, gathered up the towel and squeeze the eggplant to release excess water. (What you'll had now are wilted pieces).
In a sauté pan, heat a thin film of oil over medium heat. Add 1 whole garlic clove. Once the garlic begins to sizzle, remove it to prevent it from burning.
In 3 batches, sauté the eggplant until golden brown and soft throughout, repeating the step with a new garlic clove and fresh oil for each batch of eggplant to ensure light garlic flavor throughout.
Return all of the eggplant to the pan (it’s amazing how much it shrinks down once cooked). Slice the garlic used for flavoring the olive oil and add it to the pan along with a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Pour in marinara and simmer gently just until the marinara thickens around the eggplant.
Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water according to the directions on the package. Save 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water and then drain the noodles. Return them to the pot and drizzle with a little olive oil and saved pasta water to keep them from sticking. Season with pepper and grate cheese over the noodles.
To serve, either mix the noodles and the sauce together or pile the noodles on a plate and spoon the eggplant on top. (This makes it easier to save the leftover eggplant for eating in pita or on bruschetta the next day without having to pick out noodles.) Finish with herbs, almonds, and a grating of cheese.