Pasta with Francis Lam’s Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free! Sauce

Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free!

This is wonderfully ugly. Garlicky, herby, glossy with oil.

I don’t think beauty should be always required of food because beauty is not a reliable indicator of flavour. I am all for appreciating the simplicity of fresh, whole vegetables, but if we take that too far then everything would be eaten raw and unseasoned, a still life, not a meal.

When taking pictures, I still found myself trying to prettify it–but I bunged some leaves on top and gave up. This is not the type of dish which is improved by a mimsy plated arrangement; it’s something greasy, starchy, and satisfying that will be mounded on your plate.

Still, these things are difficult to let go of: you’ll either find this dish appealing or you won’t. It won’t convince the aubergine-curious–you’ll want to try well-salted, well-roasted aubergines for that–this dish is for people who understand the needs and wants of aubergines.

Aubergines do not want to stay whole, beautiful, and fresh.

Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free!

Francis Lam knows this. He lets the aubergines cook into a silky, ugly, delicious mess with plenty of oil, garlic, and stock. Chopped herbs and dried tomatoes add just enough freshness and flavour, and I liked it with just a further hint of something acidic.

Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free!

The point of the dish is aubergine which is sweet with oil and garlic; being overly bright and sunny with the lemon would make a different dish. However, adding a little acid to mimic the natural mouth-watering tang of something deeply savoury makes it especially good.

The second change was salting the aubergine: I salt them much more heavily and thoroughly because the first time I made it to instruction, I added what felt like an absolute mountain of salt at the end. I do not fear salt–in my experience, home cooking often falls short of true greatness because we are too timid with salt–and aubergines really, really need salt to taste good. I’m a fan of salting at every stage so the flavours really meld and develop, and a more thorough advance salting really did make a difference when I made this dish the second and third time.

Slow roast tomatoes

Oh, and I particularly liked this with more slow roast cherry tomatoes. I did a slightly faster version: 2 sliced tomatoes, about 250g halved cherry tomatoes, some thyme sprigs and a dash of oil roasted at 120 C (250 F) for 1 hour until a bit shrivelled, then 150 C (300 F) for however long to make this pasta dish from start to finish–at least 50 minutes. They should be dried out so they’re mostly firm, but with a juicy heart.

Lastly, I added a flick of chilli–gochugaru is a beautiful ingredient. Don’t like it? Don’t add it. Only you know if you’ll be overwhelmed by chilli.

Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free!

LET-MY-EGGPLANT-GO-FREE!

From Gourmet. Serves 3 – 4 as a main course, depending on how well-sauced you like your pasta. Sauce keeps in fridge for several days.

This isn’t a strict recipe. Adjust ingredients depending on exact weight of aubergines–a bit more or less oil and seasonings, as you please. I provide amounts because, personally speaking, I find it hard to gauge exact volumes of oil and herbs by eye, not because I think you must use these amounts and no more.

ingredients

sauce:

1 pound/450g aubergine, cut into generous 2.5 cm (1 inch) cubes, this is from about 2 medium length fat ones topped and tailed
Fine salt
5 tbsp/1/3 cup olive oil, extra-virgin is nice if you can get it, plus more to drizzle
3 – 6 fat cloves garlic or equivalent, knife-flattened and peeled (I felt 6 was mildly garlicky but I am a beast)
2 nice, bushy sprigs thyme or oregano (bigger than in the photos), for about 2 tsp chopped leaves
Pinch or more of chilli flakes
1 cup stock, water, flavourful cooking liquid–whatever you like
2 packed tablespoons dried or slow-roast tomatoes, roughly chopped. May I suggest these?
6 leaves basil, finely sliced, more if liked
A sneaky dash of balsamic vinegar or freshly squeezed juice from about 1/4 lemon, in addition to or instead of the tomatoes

everything else:
Enough long pasta to satisfy you. 75g – 100g per person is the usual amount for a main course. We have been known to eat more.
Plenty of salt, black pepper and/or chilli flakes to season
More dried tomatoes, basil, thyme to strew

instructions

Put your aubergine cubes in a large colander and sprinkle with 1 tsp fine salt. Toss well and leave to drain for 20 – 30  minutes. Flatten and peel garlic, chop the thyme.

Get your garlic and olive oil acquainted in a wide, heavy saucepan by letting them heat up together over a low heat. Meanwhile, dry your aubergine pieces. I squeeze handfuls of them in a towel and deposit them on the chopping board alongside the thyme, and am usually done in time for the garlic to sizzle and become fragrant. This is when the aubergine goes in. Stir to coat in the oil, increase heat slightly, and add the chilli flakes and chopped thyme or oregano, stirring for a good couple of minutes until the aubergine turns translucent at the edges.

Pour in the cup of liquid. It should half-cover the aubergine. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat so it’s at a gentle but insistent bubble. Cover, leaving a crack for steam to escape, and simmer away for 20 – 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, get your water boiling. Salt well and cook your pasta. You really do need it perfectly al dente, maybe even a touch firmer than you’d normally have it, so keep tasting.

Once the garlic and aubergine are very, very soft and the liquid is reduced, it’s ready. Turn up heat and boil hard if you need to, stirring watchfully, until you reach this stage. Mash with a fork or spoon until you have a velvety puree. Season to taste, adding a bit of lemon juice or vinegar if you want.

Add drained pasta, chopped dried tomato, and basil to the aubergine sauce and toss well. Serve immediately, maybe with olive oil, chilli flakes, basil leaves, and roast tomatoes to pass around.

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