I know, I know: The title of this post is not exactly original. The late author Laurie Colwin used it as a chapter title in her "Home Cooking.'' More recently, it's the title of a collection of essays by a collection of foodie women, including Marcella Hazan and M.F.K. Fisher, and what they like to eat when no one is watching.
Being a huge fan of the color purple, I've always loved the deep hue and shiny skin of eggplant, or aubergine. But I had never been overly enthused about it or experimented with it in cooking until several years ago, when I made a pact to eat more meatless meals and eat more healthily.
I was mostly familiar with eggplant from its presence in baba ghanoush, a Middle Eastern dip/spread served with pita bread, and the Greek dish moussaka, a layered dish of eggplant and ground beef or lamb, topped with bechamel sauce. And Robert's excellent ratatouille: Not only does he go to the trouble of grilling all the ingredients for the vegetable melange, he goes to the trouble of canning it, so we can enjoy it all winter.
Some cooks use eggplant raw in salads, but it is usually cooked. It can be grilled, stuffed, broiled, roasted, used in soups, stews, curries and stir-fries and threaded on kabobs for the grill. It's low in calories, high in fiber and full of other nutrients, like potassium, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin A.
The recipes here are alternatives to the Italian comfort food classic, eggplant Parmesan, which involves dipping eggplant slices in egg and bread crumbs, frying them in lots of oil and layering them in a casserole with cheese and sauce.
Not that I don't LOVE eggplant Parm every now and then, especially in the form of an eggplant Parm sub from our favorite neighborhood pizzeria, Mario and Salvo's, in DeWitt. Give the rollatini a try before it gets too cold to grill outside. Meanwhile, the baked eggplant and pasta dish will soothe your soul and warm your kitchen.
Adapted from "Everyday Italian,'' by Giada di Laurentiis
Olive oil (or seasoned basting oil, if you have it)
2 medium-sized eggplants
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons basil pesto (or to taste) or 20 basil leaves, minced
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
Preheat the grill to medium-high and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place a rack over a large baking sheet.
Cut the 2 ends off the eggplant. Cut the eggplants lengthwise, into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange eggplant slices on rack and sprinkle with salt to remove excess moisture and bitterness from the eggplants. Set aside for about 30 minutes. Rinse the eggplant well under cold water and pat dry.
Brush the eggplant slices lightly with olive oil then grill until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Remove slices to a platter or cookie sheet and allow to cool.
In a large bowl, beat egg gently. Mix in the ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan and toasted pine nuts. Fold in the pesto or basil.
Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with olive oil and spread a half cup of tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish.
To make eggplant rolls: Place a tablespoon of the ricotta filling on one end of the eggplant and roll up tightly. Place the eggplant seam-side down in baking dish. Continue with remaining eggplant.
Spoon tomato sauce on top of eggplant rolls, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle lightly with Parmesan cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until heated through. Serve with a little pasta on the side and a green salad. Makes about 6 servings.
Eggplant and Ziti Parmesan
Adapted from "Jane Brody's Good Food Book"
1 1/4 pounds eggplant, peeled and sliced
1/4 inch thick
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 cups ziti or other tubular pasta (uncooked)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 plump garlic clove, minced
1 1/3 cup low-fat cottage cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley or 1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
2 cups tomato sauce
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange eggplant slices in a colander. Sprinkle salt over each layer of slices and let drain for half an hour. Rinse well and pat dry with paper towels.
Meanwhile, cook ziti according to package directions. At the end of cooking, reserve about a half cup of pasta water. Drain, rinse and set aside.
Combine 2 tablespoons olive oil, black pepper to taste and garlic and smear over eggplant slices. Broil 4 inches from heat, turning once, for a total of about 5 minutes. Do not let the slices burn. You probably will need to do this in 2 batches.
Combine cottage cheese or ricotta, all but 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese, parsley, basil, oregano and red pepper flakes, if using, in a large bowl. Stir in the pasta. If mixture seems too dry, add a little pasta water.
Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Add half the ziti-cheese mixture. Follow with a layer of eggplant, then half the remaining tomato sauce. Repeat the layers and top with the remaining two tablespoons Parmesan cheese. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes or until the top is lightly browned. Makes 6 servings.