A feast with eggplant
How to Cook Everything: When you go to the market and come back with a gorgeous eggplant, basil, arugula and some delectable plum tomatoes, then a meal of eggplant Parmesan can't be far off. Recipes: Pasta with Pesto and Eggplant Parmesan
The New York Times
It strikes me as paradoxical that we think of summer food as light. The other night, cooking a purely seasonal meal, I went through about a gallon — OK, a cup — of olive oil.
If you don't want to grill every night (and if you live in New York, you can't), when you go to the market and come back with the most gorgeous eggplant, basil and arugula and some pretty nice plum tomatoes, the menu is preordained: eggplant Parmesan, pasta with pesto, arugula salad. It is a feast almost as easy to produce for six, which is what I did, as for two. And a cup of oil for six people is hardly profligate.
I like the most minimalist eggplant Parmesan imaginable, really an eggplant gratin with tomatoes. (If memory serves me, that's how they make it in Parma: no mozz, no meat.) You cook the eggplant in abundant oil. Yes, you can broil it or bake it, but I really think the taste of eggplant slices that have had oil boiled right through them is dreamy. And do not even consider peeling them at this time of year because the skin is arguably the best part.
Make a tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. If you have big, gorgeous tomatoes, you can slice them thinly and leave them uncooked, and that makes perfect sense; my tomatoes were plums, and therefore wanted to be turned into sauce. Layer the two with cheese and bake the thing.
I have made pesto without nuts and without cheese and even without garlic, but the classic contains all three, and why not? The two modifications I make from the true classic are:
1. I use a food processor, not a mortar and pestle (I'm not masochistic, generally); and 2. I find myself increasingly using walnuts. I love pine nuts, or I have loved them, but they are twice as expensive as they once were (and they were never cheap). Also, the ones from China, now far more common than those from elsewhere, give some people a weird lingering taste that does not sound like fun. Walnuts are lovely in pesto, and you see that in Liguria, so you can rest easy about authenticity.
The salad is almost easier to make than to describe. Arugula — real arugula, with dirt on its roots and worthy of the name rocket — is to me among the best foods of summer. I almost always dress it with olive oil and lemon, because I like the lemon's low acidity level with the arugula's bitter heat, but sherry vinegar is also terrific.
If you look at these recipes, you might think that the meal requires at least an hour and a half to prepare. But this is a lesson in multitasking, because the reality is that only sauteing the eggplant takes any time at all. I got this meal done in an hour, and to help you do the same, I'm providing a kind of schedule. You might have a different way of doing things, and that's fine, but here's my order of battle:
Heat oil for eggplant. The larger the skillet, the faster your cooking time.
Start trimming and slicing eggplant. You don't have to do it all right now. Start cooking it.
Toast walnuts in a dry pan. Turn eggplant as needed.
"Grate" Parmesan in food processor. (I use the regular metal blade, hence the quotes; it's really a kind of mincing. You can grate it by hand, but you're going to use the processor, anyway.) Slice some eggplant, remove some, watch the nuts — you get the idea.
Cool walnuts. Wash and spin basil. Keep an eye on eggplant, dealing with it as necessary. Chop onion when you get a chance. Peel garlic.
Chop walnuts in food processor or by hand, if you prefer. Remember eggplant! Chop tomatoes.
By now eggplant might be done. Cook onion, then tomatoes. Heat oven. Make pesto. Start water for pasta.
Assemble eggplant Parmesan and get it in the oven. It can come out of the oven when it's hot, and wait for you if necessary.
Wash arugula. Cook pasta.
Dress arugula. Drain and dress pasta. Garnish eggplant. What'd I miss? Serve.
PASTA WITH PESTO
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
½ cup walnuts or pine nuts
Big bunch basil, about 10 stems
2 cloves garlic, peeled, or to taste
Olive oil as needed
Salt and pepper
Grated Parmesan to taste
1 pound pasta, any shape
1. Toast nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking frequently, until fragrant, browned and not burned. Pulse them in a food processor until chopped but not at all powdery.
2. Wash the basil; dry it in a salad spinner. Put it in the food processor with the garlic and as much oil as you need to allow the machine to do its work. Process, adding salt, pepper and oil as needed. When the pesto is smooth and delicious, stir or pulse in the nuts and cheese.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it's tender but not mushy. Dress with the pesto, thinning with a little of the cooking water if necessary. Serve immediately.
Time: An hour, or a little more (sadly)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Olive oil as needed
2 pounds eggplant, preferably small ones but in any case, firm
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
2 pounds plum tomatoes, preferably fresh, chopped
Parmesan cheese, grated
Chopped parsley for garnish, optional
1. Put 1/8 inch of oil in your largest skillet (the bigger the skillet, the faster you can get through sauteing the eggplant) and turn the heat to medium. Start trimming and slicing eggplant: ½-inch slices, or maybe 3/8 inch, but not as thin as ¼ inch. When the oil shimmers, add the eggplant; you can crowd them as long as they don't overlap. Season with salt and pepper and cook, turning as necessary, until nicely tender and browned on both sides; drain on paper towels. Add more oil when necessary.
2. Cook the onion in the remaining oil; when it's tender, add the tomatoes and some salt and pepper and cook at a lively simmer until saucy, 10 or 15 minutes. Heat the oven to 400.
3. Eyeball your eggplant and your baking dishes and pick a nice dish that will work. I like a big oval gratin dish for this. Add a layer of eggplant, then tomato sauce, then cheese, then eggplant, tomato sauce, cheese. That'll probably do, but you can make more layers if you like. Bake until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is bubbly, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve hot or at room temperature.