Eggplant is a uniquely beautiful thing. Shiny and so deeply dark purple that it almost appears black, this member of the nightshade family (along with tomatoes, potatoes and peppers) seems mysterious and full of secrets.
One of its secrets is that it's not a vegetable. It's actually a fruit, and not just any fruit. Eggplants are technically considered berries, because they contain small edible seeds.
For years the only eggplant you could find at your local grocery store was of the large, roundish globe variety. Today you can often find a variety of choices. The long, thin Japanese types are commonly found in the produce section. Fairy Tale eggplants are small, with light purple and creamy white stripes and can be easy to find this time of year, which is peak eggplant season.
When I'm shopping for eggplants, I always look for the Japanese or Fairy Tale varieties. They have fewer seeds, a firmer flesh and a thinner skin, and they typically don't need to be salted, which is often necessary with the big globe variety. Salting a sliced globe eggplant ahead of time draws out the water and helps prevent the eggplant from soaking up too much oil.
Another important feature of eggplants is their ability to soak up flavor, and lots of it. Its own flavor is mild, which makes them perfect to pair with other bold ingredients, as I've done in this week's recipe, Spicy Eggplant Pasta.
The recipe is a bit of an international mashup, combining the flavor profiles of two iconic dishes — one from Italy and one from Greece.
Pasta alla Norma, one of Italy's late-summer favorites, starts with eggplant, which is sautéed in copious amounts of olive oil and combined with tomatoes, garlic, oregano, red chiles and basil before being tossed with pasta. It's an unctuous, almost decadent dish that makes the most of its star ingredient, eggplant.
Moussaka is a well-known Greek dish that looks a little like lasagna, with slices of eggplant, again sautéed in olive oil, in place of lasagna noodles. The eggplant is layered with ground lamb or beef mixed with a tomato sauce that's seasoned, much like Pasta alla Norma, with oregano, garlic and red chiles. But in this case it's also kissed with just a touch of cinnamon.
Our pasta takes the best of both worlds, and the result is a luxurious, almost decadent dish that's quick and easy to make and sure to turn dinner, any night of the week, into a memorable meal.
Spicy Eggplant Pasta
Serves 4 to 6.
Rich and luxurious, this indulgent pasta, sauced with sautéed eggplant, lamb, tomatoes, warm spices and red chile flakes, mixes the flavors of both Italy and Greece to create an easy, but memorable, meal. From Meredith Deeds.
• 6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
• 1 1/4 lb. eggplant (preferably Japanese), cut into 1/2-in. pieces
• 3/4 tsp. salt, divided
• 8 oz. ground lamb or beef
• 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 1 tsp. dried oregano
• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
• 3 tbsp. tomato paste
• 1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes
• 1/2 c. water
• 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
• 12 oz. dried penne
• 3/4 c. crumbled feta cheese
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the eggplant and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is browned and softened, about 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer eggplant to a plate. Repeat with remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil, eggplant and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
Drain all but 1 teaspoon oil from the same skillet and add the lamb or beef. Cook over medium heat, breaking up any clumps with a wooden spoon, until browned. Drain any excess fat. Add the garlic, oregano, cinnamon, red pepper flakes and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook for another minute, until fragrant. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until the paste has turned a rusty red color, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, water and eggplant and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary,
Meanwhile, cook pasta to al dente, according to package directions. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the eggplant sauce. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Divide into serving bowls, top with feta cheese and serve.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.