Rena's aubergine in tomato sauce, Greek style
I made my favorite eggplant dish tonight for an impromptu dinner with my neighbors. I learned how to make it at my friend Rena's weekend house on an island on the Aegean Sea, hence the Greek Style in the name. Rena and I made this often on those trips, as it's quite versatile. We would make a batch to serve on the first night as a side dish to roasted meat, perhaps lamb from right there on the island. On the second day we might use it as a sauce for a pasta lunch. If we had any left, which was not often, we might spread the -by then- mushy sauce on crusty bread, a perfect first bite to get the appetite going at the dinner table.
We didn't use a recipe when we cooked this on Kea, letting our eyes, nose, and palate guide us along. Although I've written up a recipe here for easy reference, I suggest that you do the same as Rena and I did on that sunny island because, as any great peasant recipe worth its salt, this one will not benefit from following the recipe to the letter. Water, sugar, and acid contents in tomatoes vary quite a bit, so you will have to adjust your ingredients accordingly. Trust your taste and the result will delight you.
Don't be afraid to believe in your own taste, this dish is so simple it's almost impossible to go wrong. The ingredient list is short, tomatoes, eggplants, onion, olive oil, and thyme that grows wild all over the island. How much simpler could it get?
Penne and Rena's Aubergine in tomato sauce, Greek style
1.5 pounds eggplant (use the thin, elongated eggplants since they will stay in chunks rather than break up into a complete mush)
2 pounds tomatoes
2-2.5 cups olive oil (I love a lot of oil in this dish, but you can tone it down to your taste.)
1 small onion, diced
a few sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Fill a medium size pot about 2/3 way up with water and set to boil. While waiting for the water to boil, turn you attention to the eggplants –cut them crosswise into about 2-inch thick pieces.
Heat a large pan, at least 10" in diameter with the olive oil. When a piece of eggplant sizzles immediately on contact with the oil, it is hot enough. Fry the eggplant pieces until well brown on each side. Depending on the size of your pan, you might need to do this in two or three batches. Take the fried eggplant pieces out of the pan when done, turn the heat off, and leave the leftover oil in the pan.
To peel and seed the tomatoes, first cut a cross at the base of the tomato with a sharp knife. Dip a few tomatoes at a time into the small pot filled with water -which should be boiling rigorously by now- and leave them in the boiling water for about 30-45 seconds. The skin will peel off the tomato quite easily after the boiling water bath. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes. Puree the tomato flesh until it is the texture of tomato sauce. You can use a regular blender or a hand blender for this.
Add the diced onion into the pan and turn the heat back up to medium-low. Sautee the onions until translucent and change the color slightly. When the onion is done, add the tomato puree into the pan, stir to mix well and throw in a big handful of salt, a copious amount of ground pepper and a few sprigs of thyme. Let the sauce bubble on the medium heat for a few minutes. Taste the sauce, you might need to add more salt. Remember that the sauce will have to be salty enough for all those eggplants, which have so far not been seasoned at all.
Then, add the eggplant slices back into the large pan. Be careful to not spill hot oil on yourself, and be very gentle with the fragile eggplant pieces. Check your seasoning, you might need to add a little more salt than you think you need. Let the pan bubbles on medium heat until the sauce reduced by almost half, or until it is the consistency you like. You might need to loosen the eggplant slices from the pan to keep them from sticking. Be very gentle when doing this, as the dish will be more visually attractive with most pieces of eggplants staying in tact. If you mush up a few, or even a lot, no worries, your dish will be just as good. Remove from heat when done. Pick out the sprigs of thyme if you can see them. You can top the dish with a bit of fresh olive oil at this point if you'd like, but it's not at all required.
This dish will serve 6-8 with pasta (short Penne style will be better with this than long strands of Spaghetti) as a main course, or serve more people as a side dish to a roasted leg of lamb or other meats.
Yet another leftover idea.
I just made a new dish with the Penne pasta and the aubergine sauce that I have left from dinner last night. It's very easy. Take a small-medium baking dish, butter the inside to prevent sticking, then line the dish with the cooked Penne from last night. Top the pasta with the aubergine sauce, then dot a few little balls of Mozzerella over the top, pushing them a bit into the sauce and pasta layer. Throw in a sprinkle or two of red pepper flakes for kick, if you'd like. Bake this in a preheated 375F oven for about 20 minutes, or until everything is hot and a little bit bubbly. Take the dish out of the oven, and switch the oven to Broil. Top the dish with a mixture of breadcrumb and grated Parmigiano Reggiano (1:2 ratio). Put it back in the oven to broil until the top is nice a brown. Serve.
If you like the cheese crust to be a little on the gooey side, you can add some grated Gruyère cheese to the breadcrumb mixture as well.