Simplest Eggplant Sauce, with Homemade Sundried Tomatoes

Eggplants abound at the farmers' markets this month – giant Black Beauties and fat Rosa Biancas, as well as the small, slender Asian varieties. Many of us are confused about the best way to cook this mysterious and beautiful vegetable. Here's the perfect recipe to start with, if you're afraid of eggplant - it brings out the silky texture and nutty flavor without much fuss.

One question I've often pondered is: To salt or not to salt? Some say salt removes bitterness by causing the cells to release water, which brings the bitter compounds with it. Some say it does nothing. Others say “female” eggplants are bitter while “male” ones are not. Well, after some research, I came to the following conclusions: There are no female or male eggplants. Most eggplants sold today are not bitter – if in doubt, just ask the farmer who sold it to you. If the eggplant is very bitter, salting will only help if you leave it to drain for a very long time (like 2-3 hours). However, salt can help balance bitter flavors, tricking your tastebuds into not noticing the bitterness as much. Most importantly, salting does play an important role in how the eggplant cooks. The salt causes the cells to collapse, releasing some of the water and air trapped inside. This helps to keep the eggplant from absorbing so much oil when you cook it (although once it is cooked, it will release the oil again).

This sauce may not win any beauty contests, but it is truly delicious. The recipe comes from the fabulous Francis Lam on, and it doesn't matter if you salt the eggplant, because the oil is an important part of the sauce. The delicate, nutty flavor and silky texture of the eggplant are only enhanced by sun-dried tomatoes and fresh herbs. I've even included instructions for making your own sun-dried tomatoes, since it's tomato season and our climate is perfect for it.

3 cloves garlic
1/3 C. olive oil
1 large eggplant
2 sprigs thyme
1 C. chicken or vegetable stock
1 t. salt
2 T. sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped
A handful of fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

½ pound pasta

Smash the garlic cloves with the side of a knife, and set them in a wide skillet with the olive oil over low heat. Cut the eggplant into half-inch cubes, and add it to the skillet, turning it rapidly to coat the pieces with oil. Strip the leaves from the thyme and add them to the eggplant. Cook on medium-high heat until the eggplant is turning translucent and starting to brown. Meanwhile, start boiling the water for the pasta, and cook as directed on the package. Add stock and simmer until the eggplant is very tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the salt, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil, adjusting the salt as needed.

Make Your Own Sun-Dried Tomatoes!

Slice tomatoes ¼ inch thick, or just slice cherry tomatoes in half. Brush a baking dish lightly with olive oil, lay the tomato slices on it (individually, so they don't overlap) and sprinkle them with salt. Cover with cheesecloth or a clean piece of window screen, and set in full sun on a hot day. Turn the tomatoes over halfway through the day, and continue drying until they are leathery. This takes at least a full day - you may even need to bring them in at night and put them out the next day. Even easier, set the baking dish in a 200º oven for 2 hours, then turn tomatoes over and check every 15 minutes until they are done.

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