Did you know that eggplants kick their blossoms off if they don’t get fertilized? Just kick them off! Like a bouncer unceremoniously tossing an unruly guest, by the collar, out into the back alley. ”And stay out!” I know this now, after a bit of internet gardening-forum perusing, gasping, re-searching, and confirming.
As you may well have imagined, I developed a sudden, keenly focused, interest in the subject after I kept finding the blossoms of our eggplant lying scattered about on the porch below it, completely open and intact, un-chewed upon, as if they had been strewn by an industrious flower girl. I had missed the wedding though.
At first I suspected birds or insects. I imagined little beetles and ants popping the blossoms off and tossing them to the ground, laughing and egging each other on. Like the insect version of cow tipping. Until, finally, one day it happened right in front of my eyes. One moment the blossom was on the plant, and the next it just fell off. As if the eggplant simply didn’t want it anymore and was cutting it off, disowning it, which, I guess, in a sense, is what was happening.
I have vowed that if our eggplant produces any more blossoms, I’m going to hand pollinate them with a small paintbrush, or perhaps a cu-tip. I’ve read it can be done. The gardening forums are quite clear, chipper even, about that possibility. But, if that doesn’t happen, we’re simply going to have to be proud of our plant for the two small, gangly eggplants that it did grow.
I transformed them, with one of our tomatoes, into a ratatouille. A ratatouille with portion sizes about appropriate for a doll. There was scarcely more than a thimbleful for each of us, but man if that wasn’t the best couple of bites of ratatouille I’ve ever eaten. Much of this is probably the flavor of pride in our little potted garden. But, it left us with a hunger for more eggplant.
Our CSA obliged. Last year was a somewhat thin year for eggplants (which had left me nervous about this year – hence one of the underlying motivations for growing our own, er, attempting our own), but this year they’ve stepped it up, and last week we found a crate awaiting us, tumbling over with eggplants, knobbly, skinny, plump, zebra-striped, flecked, or deep midnight purple. I selected a rather roly-poly, pear shaped one, that was royal purple. I couldn’t help it. I named him Greg. (I know you should never name your food. I did it anyway.)
We also received a pint full of cherry tomatoes that could easily have been mistaken for jewels. Good gracious this part of the growing season is opulent.
There is a classic pasta dish with an eggplant and tomato sauce called pasta alla Norma. I don’t know who Norma was, but she had excellent taste. Using our eggplant and the gorgeous cherry tomatoes, I created my own simple and satisfying version of the dish. Pasta alla Greg-the-eggplant!
You cube the eggplant and cook it down with onion and garlic until it has turned soft and silky, but not to mush. Then you add the tomatoes along with a pinch of red pepper, thyme, and some white wine – this is obligatory, really, it adds so much flavor! If you’d like even a bit more tomato flavor you can stir in a spoonful of tomato paste. It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s nice. This all gets cooked for a few more minutes into a sauce.
In the meantime, of course, you need to boil up your pasta, and reserve some precious pasta water for binding everything together. Once the pasta is tossed with the summery, sweet-mellow vegetable sauce, you reach the step that makes it divine. Ricotta. Have I mentioned my love of ricotta? Oh, right.
Traditionally, pasta alla Norma has the ricotta all mixed into the sauce. But, I prefer to spoon it in a dollop on top of each bowl of pasta. This way, the cool creaminess of the cheese stands in contrast to the bright tomato in each bite. But the ricotta also gently melts into the sauce, blurring the boundaries over the course of the meal, until by the end of the meal you are eating a creamy pasta. A twofer of the most delicious sort.
Pasta with Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Ricotta (serves 4-6)
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 medium-large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 Tbs. tomato paste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
- 1 lb. pasta in a somewhat sturdy shape like rigatoni or penne
- 1 cup, or so, fresh ricotta (make your own!)
- salt and pepper
- Parmesan cheese for grating on top
- In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook for a couple of minutes, until softened.
- Add the eggplant, and sprinkle generously with salt. Stir and cook for 2 minutes uncovered, then cover and cook over medium heat until the eggplant is softened, about 8 minutes. Uncover, and cook for about 3 more minutes, until the eggplant is quite tender. If the pan is drying out too much, add a splash of water.
- In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.
- Stir the cherry tomatoes, tomato paste, white wine, and thyme into the eggplant mixture. Allow to simmer, stirring, until the tomatoes have softened and collapsed, about 4-5 minutes.
- Add the pasta and about 1/4 – 1/2 cup of pasta water to the sauce in the pan, and toss well to coat the pasta, allowing it to cook for another minute or so in the frying pan. If the sauce seems too dry, add a bit more pasta water as needed. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Divide the pasta into dishes. Top each dish with a large dollop of ricotta. Then, sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan if desired. Enjoy!