Most nights I throw together dinner based on what’s in the refrigerator and the pantry, cooking by the seat of my pants without a recipe. Sometimes these are the best dinners I make, and I want to share them with you. There are no proper recipes for these dinners and what I share is merely a suggestion. If the idea appeals to you, run with it and make it your own. Share your variations and the unique spin you put on it, and have fun in the kitchen, cooking without a book.
We’ve been getting a lot of eggplant in our CSA this summer, which initially presented a bit of a challenge. Sean has never been a big fan of eggplant, so I had to find a way to make this sometimes tricky vegetable appealing to him. I’m pleased to say, I think I’ve succeeded in making him, if not an eggplant fan, at least a passing acquaintance. And this pasta might have had something to do with it.
I was inspired thinking about Pasta alla Norma, a classic Italian eggplant dish. I’ve always been intrigued by this dish, but what I really want it to be is something creamier, something a little more decadent. Eggplant has this amazing ability to become smooth and silky, to almost melt into a dish, and I wanted to exploit that quality. I totally succeeded with this one, and made a bastardized version of Pasta alla Norma that is exactly what I always wanted it to be.
What makes this pasta truly outstanding is the smoked mozzarella. This is a very intense kind of cheese. It seriously smells like bacon. It’s melty and gooey and it smells like bacon. This is not a cheese to be trifled with. It has to be used judiciously and with great purpose. The other key to this pasta is the roasted tomatoes. Roasting them brings out their sweetness and their tartness. It enables them to stand up a little more boldly to that smoked mozzarella.
Ready for dinner? Let’s get cooking.
- 2 or 3 tomatoes
- olive oil
- a medium eggplant
- heavy cream
- smoked mozzarella
- pasta, preferably fettuccine
First, roast the tomatoes. If you have a lot of time, you can do this low and slow, at about 275 or 300 degrees for a few hours. But that’s not strictly necessary. I roasted these at 350 for about 30 or 40 minutes. Just quarter or halve the tomatoes, put them on a baking sheets, and drizzle them generously with olive oil, and good sprinkling of salt. Roast them until they are wilted and puckered and deep red in color. Then set them aside.
Put a big pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Cut the eggplant into cubes, and heat a large skillet over medium heat. Again, add a generous drizzle of olive oil to the pan. Eggplant sucks up oil like that’s its job, so you need to use kind of a lot. When it’s very hot, add the eggplant and give it a good stir, and a sprinkling of salt. Let the eggplant cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s softened and a little browned in spots. While it’s cooking, mince the garlic and grate the mozzarella.
Once the eggplant is cooked, add the roasted tomatoes (and the oil from the roasting pan) into the skillet. Add the garlic and saute for about 30 seconds. Then add about a quarter of a cup to a half a cup of heavy cream. Stir it around, and bring the cream to a simmer. Let it cook, simmering and stirring, until it thickens and coats the vegetables.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until it’s al dente. Drain it (but leave some cooking water still clinging to the pasta) and stir it into the skillet with the vegetables and cream. Stir well, then stir in the basil, and finally the grated mozzarella. Stir and stir and stir until the cheese is melted and stringy and coats everything. Give it a taste. Does it need a little salt? That will probably depend on your mozzarella. Season until the flavors pop, then garnish with a little extra basil and serve.