A warming pasta certain to sustain you

Originally Published November 8, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 7, 2012 at 10:36 a.m.
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Tribune Media Services

Adding eggplant, tomatoes, goat cheese and more can take pasta from a side dish to a fantastic main course.

By Wolfgang Puck

Tribune Media Services

Now that we’ve set back the clocks this past weekend, it feels like autumn is really here. Nighttime is coming earlier each day, and more and more, there’s a chill in the air — even here where I live, in Southern California.

I love cooking pasta at this time of year. A bowl full of noodles prepared al dente — “to the tooth,” the phrase that Italians use to describe pasta that is perfectly cooked until tender but still pleasingly chewy — feels robust, filling and warm, like the most delicious insulation imaginable. And when you toss that pasta with a simple, quickly made sauce featuring earthy vegetables, along with creamy and tangy goat cheese, you have a main course that will be certain to sustain you. So, let me share with you my simple strategy for preparing such pasta dishes.

First, to provide a touch of classic flavor that brings distinction to so many Italian-style noodle preparations, I usually double-blanch a few garlic cloves. This simple chef’s technique mellows their harshness without diminishing their distinctive flavor. Just boil the whole trimmed but unpeeled cloves briefly, cool them quickly in a bowl of ice water, and then do it all once again before draining, peeling and slicing them. You’ll be surprised by how pleasant tasting the result will be.

Then, in extra-virgin olive oil, I saute whatever vegetables look their best at the farmers market at this time of year. Sliced mushrooms are a good choice, for example. I also like strips of kale leaves, or small bite-sized florets of broccoli or cauliflower. One of my favorite selections, however, is cubes of slender Asian eggplants, which have a mild flavor with none of the bitterness you may find in some of the larger globe-shaped eggplants.

Once the vegetables have been browned, I’ll add the garlic and saute it a bit before tossing in herbs, a touch of spicy red-pepper flakes, some slivered sun-dried tomatoes and a little broth, which finishes cooking the featured vegetable while it also reduces to coating consistency to form a sauce that I’ll enrich just before serving with the goat cheese and a little butter. Meanwhile, the pasta cooks in a separate pot of boiling salted water — allow just a couple of minutes for fresh noodles, a while longer if all you can find are dried — and will be ready to toss with the finished sauce.

It’s that easy to produce a seasonal pasta main course that needs only a side salad, some good, crusty bread and your favorite beverage to complete the meal.

SPICY EGGPLANT FETTUCCINE WITH TOMATOES AND GOAT CHEESE

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 cloves garlic

Salt

3 Asian eggplants, about 1 pound total weight, ends trimmed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground white pepper

1/4 cup drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, cut into pieces 1/4-inch thick

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1/2 to 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

2 cups organic chicken broth

12 ounces store-bought fresh fettuccine

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

4 ounces fresh creamy goat cheese, cut into small pieces

6 fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled lengthwise, and cut crosswise into thin strips

Directions:

Fill a small bowl with ice cubes and water. Trim both ends of the garlic cloves. In a small saucepan, pour about 1 inch cold water and salt lightly. Bring to a boil. Add the garlic and boil for 30 seconds. Remove the cloves with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge into the ice water. Boil and chill the cloves again. Drain and pat them thoroughly dry. Slip off the peels, cut the garlic into thin slices, and set aside.

Cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. In a large saute pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the eggplant, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook until golden brown all over, stirring occasionally, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue sautéing and stirring until the garlic colors lightly, 2 to 3 minutes longer.

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, add to the eggplant the sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary, and pepper flakes to taste. Pour in the broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat slightly, and simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, until the liquid thickens slightly, 5 to 7 minutes.

Season the boiling water with salt, add the fettuccine, and cook until al dente, tender but still slightly chewy, 1 to 2 minutes or following package directions. Drain well and add the pasta to the sauce, stirring and tossing to coat all the strands. Stir in the butter, parsley and goat cheese. Adjust the seasonings to taste.

Serve immediately, dividing the pasta and sauce among 4 large shallow serving bowls. Garnish with fresh basil.

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