“Here’s my deal with eggplant,” Mr. Brooks says, chewing a piece, fork still hovering over the pan on the stove. “It looks so pretty. But what does it taste like?”
“I think it’s more about texture than taste,” I proffer. “You know, kind of … silky.”
I had silently made my own observation about eggplant a few moments earlier — namely, that I find it suspect because it does not scream when you put it in a hot pan. If you plopped, say, carrots in a pan with oil for 10 minutes — or zucchini, or even potatoes — there would be sizzling, simmering … some sort of ruckus. Eggplant just sort of sits there, browning silently, without a peep, or even a sigh. Even the oil it’s cooking in disappears — four tablespoons worth! — assimilated and absorbed like some sort of hapless slow-moving human in a sci-fi flick.
It’s not good when you are wary of your ingredients.
But all of the other recipes that are contenders this week began with the phrase “Heat oven to 400 degrees,” and I just wasn’t up for that tonight. Plus, I was worried about how long eggplant keeps in the refrigerator … and I, uh, forgot to defrost any meat that would be used in other dishes. We have a winner!
Cost of ingredients: $8.08 plus tax, to buy eggplant, diced tomatoes, cheese and basil. I already had garlic, red pepper flakes, pasta, and salt and pepper on hand.
Substitutions: One deliberate, one accidental. Gluten-free fusilli — this time made of quinoa instead of rice — instead of traditional rigatoni. And Parmesan Reggiano cheese instead of grated ricotta salata.
Here’s another case of why it pays to write things down: Yesterday I went looking for that ricotta salata, which the recipe says is a dried, pressed version of traditional ricotta. (Its name also suggested it has been salted.) If it’s unavailable, the suggested substitution is grated Pecorino Romano cheese. I went into the store repeating “ricotta salata” to myself, figuring, you’re only looking for one thing, no list necessary. When my local chichi grocery store — which brags about its cheese selection, which apparently as close as I’m going to get to an old-school cheesemonger — didn’t have it, I grabbed this container of 24-month-old Parmesan Reggiano and thought: “Perfect! It’s already shredded!” And got home, looked at the recipe and said: “Crap.”
Then again, Parmesan is also salty, goes well with Italian-type dishes … and the cheese is just an accent on the dish anyway, so it wasn’t as if this resulted in any major recipe meltdown. It’s improv!
As easy as they said? Given that I found the recipe in “The Best 30-Minute Recipe” from the people at Cooks Illustrated — and it has a timetable for how to proceed — I was pretty much guaranteed to finish on time. Utensils required: one pot, one pan, one spatula. (Because I am gross and used the same one for stirring the simmering ingredients and the pasta — something I would not do if I were cooking meat in the pan. [Don’t be afraid to eat at my house. I promise I won’t kill you … at least not that way.])
How’d THAT go over? Mr. Brooks had seconds. I rate it highly as well — the eggplant does lend the dish a nice silky flavor, while the tomatoes and red peppers add bite and spice (and the cup of cheese don’t hurt none, either). And the quinoa noodles passed muster, since everything else was so flavorful.
Would I make it again? Yes — it’s a great, filling alternative to meat dishes. Plus: a half-hour total. I’ve got enough time to blog about it, do the dishes, upload my own photo (because Cooks Illustrated doesn’t archive its book recipes, only the ones in the magazine) and still make it to yoga by 8.