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Spice up your Columbus DayOriginally Published October 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 9, 2013 at 11:08 a.m.
Buongiorno! With Columbus Day coming up on Monday, the annual celebration of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas 521 years ago, I’m in an Italian frame of mind.
I love to cook Italian-inspired food. Part of that love comes from the fact that my hometown in Austria is only about 75 miles from the border with Italy. So I grew up familiar with Italian flavors. I’ve always loved pasta and pizza, which have long featured prominently on my menus at Spago and my other restaurants.
One of my favorite Italian ingredients has always been eggplant, or melanzana as they call the vegetable there. Of course, eggplant didn’t originate in Italy. The vegetable comes from the Indian subcontinent. But Arab traders brought it to the Mediterranean more than 1,000 years ago, and Italian cooks eventually adopted it as their own.
Think even briefly about that nation’s cooking, and a delicious range of dishes come to mind, like baked eggplant stuffed with meat or sausage; the sweet-and-sour summer vegetable stew called caponata; and eggplant alla parmigiana, in which the vegetable is sliced, breadcrumb-coated, fried and layered with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. (The vegetable’s English name, by the way, comes from the fact that early varieties that came to Europe, including some you can still find today in farmers markets, resembled ivory-colored goose eggs.)
I like to make all those dishes, but my love of eggplant doesn’t stop there. Although the vegetable tastes wonderfully rich and meaty when fully cooked (a dramatic contrast to its slightly unpleasant taste and texture when raw), its slightly spongy consistency enables it to soak up all sorts of seasonings. Just think of the wide variety of lively eggplant dishes you’ve probably enjoyed in Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants.
So I enjoy getting creative with eggplant, as you’ll see in the recipe I share here for a spicy eggplant sauce to serve with pasta. I start with the longer, more slender Asian varieties of eggplants you’ll find in many markets today because they tend to have fewer seeds, more tender skins and a finer flavor. I saute them in extra-virgin olive oil, along with sliced garlic cloves that I’ve first double-blanched in boiling water to eliminate their harshness, and then add a touch of red pepper flakes for spice, sun-dried tomatoes, broth and fresh rosemary.
After only about 20 minutes of cooking, you’ll have a sauce ready to toss with fettuccine for a dish so delicious and satisfying that no one may notice it doesn’t contain any meat (especially if you opt to use vegetable broth). It’s a perfectly fresh, yet traditional, way to celebrate Columbus Day around your dinner table.
SPICY EGGPLANT FETTUCCINE WITH DOUBLE-BLANCHED GARLIC
4 garlic cloves
3 Asian eggplants, about 1 pound total weight, ends trimmed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup well-drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, cut into thin strips
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups organic chicken broth or vegetable broth, heated
12 ounces store-bought fresh or dried 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 up lengthwise, and cut crosswise to make thin strips
First, double-blanch the garlic: Bring a small saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil, and on a counter nearby, place a bowl filled with ice cubes and water. With a small, sharp knife, trim the ends off of each garlic clove, leaving the peels on. Carefully drop the cloves into the boiling water and cook for 30 seconds. With a slotted spoon, remove the cloves from the water and immediately plunge into the ice water.
Remove the cloves and carefully drop them again into the boiling water for 30 seconds more; then, drain and immediately plunge them again into the ice water. Drain the garlic well and pat the cloves thoroughly dry. Slip off the peels. With the knife, very thinly slice the garlic and set aside.
Fill a large stockpot or pasta pot with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the eggplant, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the sliced garlic and saute just until it takes on a little color, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary, along with red pepper flakes to taste. Pour in the broth. Raise the heat slightly, bring the liquid to a boil, and boil until it reduces and thickens slightly, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, season the boiling water with salt. Add the fettuccine and cook until al dente, tender but still slightly chewy, following suggested cooking times on the packaging. Drain the pasta thoroughly and add it to the eggplant mixture, stirring to coat all the pasta with the sauce. Sprinkle in the butter, parsley and goat cheese, and stir until combined and the cheese is partially melted. Adjust the seasonings to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, divide the pasta among 4 large serving bowls. Garnish with basil and serve immediately.