This morning, the wife and I are having a breakfast conversation. For someone who is generally very quiet around other people, my wife can definitely talk a blue streak with me. So today, she is telling me in great detail about the first time she had bagels and cream cheese, which is what we were having for breakfast. I learned about who she was with, where they were going, her puzzlement over the breakfast menu and how her nephew suggested she try the bagel and cream cheese. Then she says to me, "Isn't it funny honey, how I was afraid to try it (the bagel) for the first time?" Now here we have someone who doesn't eat pork, chicken, turkey, beef , sushi,clams, mussels, any leaf vegetables that are red, or even slightly bitter, wine, beer or alcohol of any kind, anything but vanilla ice cream, and I'm sure I'm leaving out a lot of stuff. So, no, I didn't think it was funny at all. In fact, it's a miracle and if you don't mind me saying it, a tribute to my cooking skills that I am able to feed her at all. My trick is in sticking to food she is familiar with and hoping she won't dissect the dish too much to remove suspicious items like basil leaf which annoys me but what can I do?
Today's meal illustrates a point I make all the time to grasshoppers who want to know how to put together amounts if I never or rarely follow cookbooks and if I am "inventing" dishes. My secret is that even if I say I don't measure, I actually do. The ingredients for this meal which serves two are:
2- inch thick slices of eggplant, cubed , salted and drained for at least a half hour
2 cloves of garlic sliced thin
red pepper flakes to taste
celery,onion and red bell pepper diced as per instuctions
about a tsp. of capers
grated peccorino romano cheese
about 15 cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese
red wine vinegar, sugar and good olive oil for flavor
2/5 of a pound of penne pasta or your choice
Take a look at the photo below:
If you notice, the eggplant which is on the left side of the prep area takes up the most room as it is the "star"of the meal. Going counter clockwise from the bottom left, you see garlic (2 cloves), then celery, onions and (skipping the dish of capers) peppers all about the same volume and together taking up about as much space as the eggplant. That's how I measure- in relation to other things in the dish. So, let's get cooking.
Because it absorbs a lot of oil, I start by frying the eggplant in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the skillet. I salted the cut eggplant first, let it sit for about 30 to 40 minutes on the wire rack above and then squeezed it and dried it in a paper towel. Let the oil get hot over high heat before adding the eggplant. Also, put your pasta water on to boil.
Three or four minutes later, I have removed the nicely browned eggplant to a paper towel. I then discard all but 3 tablespoons of oil and lower the heat of the pan to medium low.
First, I add the garlic and some red pepper flakes and fry them till the garlic begins to color. Immediately, I add the aromatics, the onion, celery and bell pepper with a sprinkle of salt. After a few minutes, the onion will have turned opaque and the celery and pepper will have softened.
Now, I return the eggplant to the pan with the capers and add my secret ingredient: about a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and a generous pinch of sugar.This gives the dish a subtle sweet and sour element (something like the way anchovy or fish sauce is used by Italian and Asian cooks)
Next, comes the tomato sauce- about 4 wooden spoons worth. Look at the picture. It hasn't turned into a tomato sauce with vegetables, but is still mainly about the eggplant.
All this time, the pasta has been boiling and is now about a minute short of being cooked "al dente". Now, I add about 3/4 of a ladle of pasta water to the pan and turn the heat up to high.
Finally, I add the drained pasta to the pan and let it cook for one more minute absorbing the liquid and thus "tightening" the sauce as you have seen me do in countless other posts. When the water is absorbed, I shut off the heat add and stir in the basil leaves (which TW will pick out of her plate), most of the grated cheese, the mozzarella which will immediately start to get "oozy"and 2 tablespoons or so of my finest olive oil. Plate the dish with the remaining cheese.