A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Now I'm Cooking! — Eggplant & Pasta Bake

Just rolled out of bed
I've just poured myself a cup of Golden Darjeeling tea — without milk, as I'm still suffering from my cold, and because I'm starting to prefer this type of tea plain — and now I'm ready to tackle my first recipe posting.  Normally, I just get into the zone when I cook, letting my subconscious chef take over, but yesterday, while I was preparing the dish for this posting, I had to keep interrupting my process to assume different roles.

The individual steps had to be photographed, which involved not only clicking the camera (actually, my iPhone, which I am desperately hoping will not eventually find its way into a boiling pot I am trying to capture for posterity), but also arranging the lighting and art-directing the ingredients.   Today the process continued with photo editing and now the write-up.   I have to say, I find a great sense of satisfaction in all of these steps, but it certainly complicates the act of making a meal.

One unexpected aspect of cooking for the blog — which I suppose is a lot like cooking for a TV show — is that I had to have a pretty clear idea from the start of where I was going with these ingredients.  My usual style is to just start in and see what I get inspired to concoct.  When people ask me while I am cooking what I am making, I often honestly don't know.  I expect that eventually, these two styles of creating will merge into something new.  Exciting!

My favorite kitchen puzzle to solve is — what can we do with the particular assortment of ingredients before us?  I am most pleased when I can use up seemingly unpromising and incompatible leftover bits of this and that and when I can create a dish without resorting to further shopping.  (I have attacked puzzles of this sort in my own kitchen and — to even greater challenge — at other people's houses.  Hi, Mom!)

Yesterday's problem presented itself in the form of 2 eggplants threatening to go bad if not used soon — we'd gotten eggplants 2 weeks in a row from Urban Organic, and I hadn't had a chance to do anything with them yet.  I decided to give myself extra credit if I could use up the stems from the bunch of cilantro that had gone into the weekend's chicken dish.  (Sorry, that was before I had a food blog.)  I cheated and bought 2 things at Whole Foods — I had gone there for mozzarella cheese (what goes better with eggplant, after all?) and saw among the herbs a delightful kind of oregano that I hadn't seen in awhile.  I am a sucker for fresh herbs, so the oregano ended up in this dish.

What we are going to cook here (in our imaginations for now) is a type of baked pasta dish that I originated on vacation, I think, using leftover pasta, and to which I have returned many many times for its ease of preparation, deliciousness, and possibilities of endless variation.  Here's the latest version, with eggplant and homemade tomato sauce:

Don't think of this so much as a recipe, by the way — it's more of a template.  Using the basic format, substitute whatever you have available, or whatever appeals to you.

I started by making the sauce.  First, I sauteed chopped onions and sliced garlic (still remaining from the CSA) in a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil.  (Eggplant tends to absorb a lot of oil — and seems to benefit from this — so I used even more than I usually do.)

Then, when the onions and garlic had softened, I added three big cans of diced tomatoes (you can see one of the cans in the picture above) and a little ground pepper.  After a few minutes, I added salt, chopped oregano and cilantro stems, chopped celery with its leaves, and a handful of raisins for sweetness.

I let this pot simmer for about an hour without its lid so that it could cook down a bit and thicken.  It's at its prettiest just after adding the green ingredients, before the colors get dimmed by cooking:

While that was cooking away, I diced the eggplant and put it in a bowl with a handful of salt to bleed out any bitter juices.  After about 30 minutes, I pressed down on the eggplant to squeeze out the juices and discarded them.

I sauteed the eggplant in copious olive oil for a few minutes, then added enough of my sauce to cover it and cooked this mixture until the eggplant was done.  Meanwhile, I had put on a pot of pasta to cook (penne was in the cupboard, so that's what I used).  I find that if I under-salt the water, the pasta tastes bland and cannot be fixed adequately by sprinkling on more salt after cooking, so I always dump a big fistful into the pasta water.  (Don't tell Peter — he considers me profligate with the salt and, to maintain the peace, I have created the impression that I use about a teaspoon of salt in my pasta.  If he finds out, I hope he realizes that most of the salt gets discarded along with the cooking water.)

When the sauce with the eggplant and the pasta were all cooked, I started assembling the final dish for baking.  (There was a lot of the sauce left, unneeded for this dish, which I froze to use later.  Easy future meals!)  I put pasta in the bottom of a glass baking dish and distributed halved mozzarella balls (the mini ones) and more chopped oregano over the top.  (Depending on the sauce or other ingredients I am adding to this type of dish, I will sometimes enrich the pasta layer with beaten egg, olive oil, butter, and/or grated cheese.  This dish, because of the large quantities of olive oil in the sauce and absorbed by the eggplant does not need further enrichment.)  By the way, my baking dish is not dirty, it's encrusted with years of baked-on love.)

Next, I ladled on the eggplant/sauce mixture.  I over-estimated the amount of sauce I would need, so it completely covered the pasta.  Often, I like to have some bits of pasta exposed, because they get delightfully crispy during the baking process that way.  Oh well, if we have left-overs, they will get a little crispier during the re-baking.  If.  Finally, I grated a nice, pungent aged Asiago cheese over the top.  This photo makes it look as though I put the pan out in the recent blizzard.   I do not stint on the grated cheese, which also crisps up wonderfully as it bakes.

Now this is ready to bake.  I will put it in our counter-top convection oven (best $4 I ever spent — at a flea market in our co-op) for about 40 minutes at 350, until the mozzarella is gooey and sufficient crispening (my spell-checker has indicated its opinion that this is not an actual word) has occurred in the appropriate ingredients.  I'll let you know how it turns out......

Please leave a comment to record your own creative variations.


  1. It's 10:48 in the morning and now I'm starving! Yum!

    I'm looking forward to your blog. I may even end up hanging out here more than at Peter's, because how many men's shirts does a girl need? ;-)

  2. This is one of my favorite summertime dishes when the farmer's market has so many beautiful eggplants. I'm going to try your tomato sauce recipe --I've never tried celery or cilantro (or raisins for that matter) in my sauce. Sounds good!

    I have to admit I was glad to see someone else salts and drains their eggplant. I was told awhile back by someone that I don't have to do this and that it's an old fashioned notion, but I still do.

  3. Yummo! That looks amazing, Michael! Eggplant is one of my favourite foods and this looks a heckuva lot easier/faster than my standby, "Cooks Illustrated" Eggplant parm. With a lot of the same flavours. Yay!

  4. New follower...thanks for the pics as you go. My New Years resolution is to cook at home MUCH more and to cook more healthfully. I am certainly not a whiz in the kitchen, but am going to do my best. My challenge. One vegetarian dinner each week.....this from a gal who grew up in TX cattle country and whose DH's family were cattle ranchers! Great new blog, Michael

  5. @Debbie: After all this mens shirt brouhaha, I can imagine that you are looking forward to Cathy's next ensemble....and as Peter's/Cathy's photographer, I can assure you that she is the more stimulating subject. Those legs! Those eyes! That attitude!

    @Susan: Another reason I pre-salt my eggplant is that it softens it...it begins to change the chemical composition of the eggplant just like heat in the cooking process. Also, I just love salt!

    @Darci: I have often thought about making eggplant parm, and then reconsidered. I think I am leery of the breading process — I need to conquer this irrational fear!

    @marihaf: Well, your cows presumably were vegetarians! Stop by here if you need inspiration; I cook a lot of veggie dishes. Are you cooking mostly for yourself, or are there others involved? How do they feel about veggie dining?

    Thank you everyone for your comments.

  6. This looks great, Michael. Like Debbie, I might hang out here when Peter starts posting about his sewing machines. ;)

    This looks like something my kids would eat, though they aren't eggplant aficionados, but I could even substitute. Mushrooms, yum... Though they aren't mushroom aficionados either. But if I mince said veggies up enough, it might work :)

  7. Oh I love a good pasta bake! Another enriching thing I like to add to my pasta layer is cottage cheese. I like the light cheesy gooeyness it adds. This just may be the way to get my meat loving teen to try eggplant..

  8. ooh, yum! I love pasta bakes :) x

  9. Oh, now I'm torn. I bought an eggplant to make baba ganouj, but it might be put to better use this way.

    Thanks for the salting-the-eggplant tip, I hate crunchy eggplant. If I make this dish I'll try it out. Thanks again!

  10. @shams: I didn't like mushrooms much as a kid myself. And I never tasted eggplant until college....your kids may come around too! But until then, you can keep hiding all kinds of sneaky things in casseroles....

    @LAP: I love your idea! We get really great cottage cheese from our Amish farms too, which is going to go into the next pasta bake for sure.

    @Krista: Mmmmm, baba ganouj. Do you roast your eggplant over the flame of a gas stove for this? I tried that — once — with rather messy and painful results. (Hey, I thought I had hair on that arm!) Would love to hear some alternatives.

  11. I have suspected for sometime that you were the man I really wanted to hear from, and I'm pleased to see I was right. Looking forward to following your cooking, as I love cooking more than sewing. But you don't have to tell MPB that! LOL!


  12. Don't worry, Melanie. Your secret is safe with me. Unless MPB happens to be looking over my shoulder as I type....

  13. Michael, I rent, so gas isn't an option for me. I just stab my eggplant several times and roast it in the oven with whatever else I'm baking until it collapses on itself. Yum...

    I think roasting it on a barbecue would be fantastic, doncha think?

  14. Another sewist Peter herded over here like a sheep, but I cook too.

    I like the color of chopped fresh herbs in a dish so much, I usually don't add them until just at the end after I turn off the pot. That way they retain their color and most of their active compounds (food as medicine, anyone?) and their flavor. Cooking seems to take the flavor right out of fresh herbs.

    Of course, if it's to be baked, what can one do?

    Also, re salt... I made a pasta dish for a friend once and asked him if it was good. He said it tasted like I served him salt on a plate, and over a few weeks he taught me how to cook saltless tasty food.

    Anyway, I rabbit on. Greetings from the land down under.

  15. @Krista: What you describe sounds like a murder! I do think barbecue roasting sounds great, but I'm afraid that admitting this may spark further violence. In any case, I wish I could be there to sample the result when you attack your eggplant. (I'm going to try your method the next time I need to roast one.)

  16. @Steph: Welcome, southern-hemisphere sewist! I agree with your strategy of last-minute herb addition. I think in this case I added the cilantro stems early on because they can tend to be tough in their raw state. When I realized that I should really have waited until later to toss in the oregano, I added some more to the pasta in the baking dish. I'll let you know tomorrow if the flavor came through!

    In the summer, we enjoy our herbs the most added to salads, where they really shine.

    Salt on a plate......mmmmmmmm.

  17. Also another MPB reader that got directed over!

    I have to say I am sooooooo jealous right now of the fact that you live in NYC. I've visited a couple of times so know how great it is, but the fact that you can can get your hands on all that great food? So jealous.

    I live in a fairly rural town in Australia and my fiance and I are lucky enough to get fresh eggs and the occassional veggie from a local farm - for free! - but apart from that, the local 'super'markets have overpriced produce that is often very tired and looks like it has been kicked around the storeroom for a week. It is very sad. We will quite often grocery shop when we are at one of the bigger towns that is an hour away - they have more range, better quality and its cheaper.

    The pasta dish looked very tasty indeed, I've just had my breakfast and now I feel like I'm wanting some pasta!

  18. Let me just say we had it for dinner and it was delicious!

  19. Yum.

    Yet another MPB reader here.

    My Dad taught me to always put the fresh herbs into the pasta sauce at the end, to preserve flavour, colour and nutritional goodies.

    But you've inspired me: to do more baked pasta, and to make more pasta sauce when I do, so the freezer gets some too.

  20. I love how to put this together. I'm still trying to cope with learning to cook and feeding five, you make it look tasty easy.

  21. I was delighted to read that you're inspired by the ingredients on hand, and you let the dish evolve as you prepare it. That makes so much sense to me. Re salt: I was reading recently that the recipes in chef's cookbooks aren't as delicious as the restaurant dishes they are supposed to replicate because they won't admit to the actual (large) quantity of salt and fat they use. I think if we didn't need salt, we wouldn't love it.

  22. Christopher in AotearoaJanuary 19, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    @Kirpah - you should read "The Greening of Gavin" - a blog about a bloke in Melbourne (or just outside of it)- but the best - he videos his cheesemaking efforts - he likes cheese so he makes lots.

    see this link: http://www.greeningofgavin.com/search/label/Cheese

    The videos are pretty inspiring, so who knows, you could be making your own parmesan cheese soon!