On me and Jen’s first date eleven years ago I cooked her eggplant parmesan. I drove down to Berkeley from Truckee to visit. While she was in class I went to Berkeley Bowl (the uncontested greatest supermarket in the US) before cooking a dish I hoped would impress her. After dinner we went for a sunset walk. That first date led to many others. I was fooled into thinking the eggplant parmesan had worked its magic. I learned many months (and dates) later that the eggplant had nothing to do with it. Jen has a strong dislike for eggplant and ate it to spare my feelings. Over the years I occasionally cook eggplant (one of my favorite vegetables) but usually serve it alongside something else for Jen.
A recent craving for eggplant was unfulfilled when I used an amount that I thought Jen would not notice. I cooked rice with eggplant and tomatoes and then tossed it together with a Korean soy, sesame, ginger, garlic sauce. She didn’t notice the eggplant. Nor did I. The craving continued. A recent trip to Porto Novo, Benin’s capital and home to a much better vegetable selection than I find in our town, brought me to the market. I couldn’t resist the eggplant. And, having sealed the deal with wedding vows several years ago, I decided to throw caution to the wind and not hide it under a mountain of other ingredients. The eggplant would be the star.
I dream of eggplant parmesan but it is too much of an undertaking for a weeknight. Cheese is a big challenge without a local store that sells it. No refrigerator compounds the problem. As does lack of an oven. So I decided to make a pasta sauce centered on eggplant but with a little tomato to help pull it together. In starting volume, I had almost three times as much chopped eggplant as tomato. The eggplant cooked down much more than the tomato, but still dominated the flavor. I added the olives and the anchovies at the end for their briny umami. I chopped the olives small enough to enjoy a little in almost every mouthful of pasta. The anchovies melted into the sauce. I love anchovies and can dump a jar onto pasta or bread and call it a meal. But you don’t need to be an anchovy lover to add them into a sauce like this. Their strong flavor gets distributed into the sauce and highlights the other flavors more than anything else.
Anticipating that Jen wouldn’t like the meal, I made some rosemary focaccia to go with the pasta. She started with the focaccia and loved it. I thought she would eat half of her pasta to be polite but the next thing I knew, she was going back for seconds. An eggplant dish for the eggplant wary.
Pasta with Eggplant and Tomato Sauce
¼ C olive oil^^
4 C peeled and diced eggplant^^
6 cloves garlic^
1½C chopped tomatoes^
¼ C oil cured black olives, finely chopped^^
4 anchovy filets^^
pinch crushed red pepper^
- Dice the eggplant into ¼ – ½ inch cubes. Uniformity doesn’t matter; the cubes will end up melting into the sauce. Finely chop the garlic. Roughly chop the tomatoes. If you want to peel them first, go for it. Or don’t. Or use canned tomatoes.
- Heat the olive oil until very hot but not smoking. Add the eggplant and toss to coat with the oil. It will quickly drink up the oil so act quick. Cook the eggplant for 5 – 8 minutes until its reduced in volume by half. Add the garlic. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and put a lid on the pan. Reduce the heat so the mixture simmers. Let it cook for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes so it doesn’t stick. During this time the individual tomato and eggplant chunks should break down into a uniform sauce.
- Turn off the heat. Add the olives and the anchovies. Stir. The anchovies will dissolve into the sauce. Season with red pepper, salt and pepper.
- Cook pasta in well salted water and reserve one cup of the cooking water. Toss the drained pasta with the sauce. If its dry, add a bit of the reserved cooking water.
- I finished the pasta with some fresh basil because the basil in our garden is beautiful and plentiful. If you don’t have basil, the dish will still be tasty without it.
^ Ingredient purchased in our town and used by locals on a daily basis.
^^ Ingredient purchased at supermarkets in Porto Novo or Cotonou that cater to wealthier Beninese and foreigners.
^^^ Ingredient sent courtesy of friends and families in care packages.
^^^^ From our garden.