A Good Appetite: A roasted eggplant, tomato and mint penne dish makes for a bright, intensely flavored pasta salad that could be nibbled right out of the pan, then snacked on between cocktails and conversation. Recipe: Penne with Roasted Eggplant, Chili and Mint
There are two kinds of pasta salad in this world. The first — made with al dente noodles, excellent olive oil, well-seasoned vegetables and fresh herbs — is a dish as noble as any.
Then, there is the second type, born of an unfortunate liaison between that lovely pasta salad and a mayonnaise-slicked macaroni salad. Generations of pasta salads have suffered ever since, leaving behind a bland and soggy legacy.
It is because of this that I did not even think to call the roasted eggplant, tomato and mint penne dish I whipped up for a party recently a pasta salad.
My primary goal was to make a bright, intensely flavored pasta dish that would taste good warm or at room temperature, something my friends could nibble right out of the pan, then continue to snack on between cocktails and conversation.
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I also wanted something light enough to serve as a side dish to roasted lamb for the omnivores, yet hearty enough for those not eating meat.
And finally, I wanted to use the last of the eggplant and tomatoes I had snagged at the farmers market.
To bring out the soft meatiness of the eggplant, I roasted cubes until they collapsed into a caramelized heap, and tossed them with chopped raw tomatoes and a handful of salty capers.
Then I dressed the vegetables and pasta in a pungent, spicy oil rich with anchovies, browned garlic and chilies, a strong contrast to all those sweet flavors.
Since I didn’t plan to serve the pasta piping hot, I was able to experiment with the way I handled the garlic. Usually, I toast the smashed but still-whole cloves in oil, then add them directly to the pasta in large chunks while they’re still hot. (I call these pieces garlic candy.) But I had time to let the garlic-oil mixture cool, and I fished out the softened, nutty cloves, chopped them up and added them back to the oil. Instead of isolated bites of garlic candy here and there, each forkful delivered that compelling flavor.
I don’t know whether, in the end, this dish truly reclaims the pasta-salad family honor, or merely declares a truce with its unctuous cousin. Either way, it certainly knows how to shine in polite company.
PENNE WITH ROASTED EGGPLANT, CHILI AND MINT
Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
1 ½ pounds eggplant (about 4 medium), cut into 1-inch cubes
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
½ teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
¼ teaspoon black pepper, more as needed
1 very large ripe tomato, cored and diced (1 ½ cups)
½ pound dried penne
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 anchovy fillets
Large pinch chili flakes
2 tablespoons drained capers
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ cup torn basil leaves
2 tablespoons torn mint leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. On rimmed baking sheet, toss together eggplant, 3 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Spread in one layer. Roast, tossing occasionally, until eggplant is golden brown, about 25 minutes.
2. Place tomato in large bowl and sprinkle lightly with salt.
3. Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook penne to al dente according to package instructions; drain well.
4. While pasta cooks, heat large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 remaining tablespoons oil. Stir in garlic, anchovies and chili flakes, and cook until golden and soft, about 3 minutes. Turn off heat and, using slotted spoon, put garlic on cutting board. Let it cool a few minutes, then chop and add back to oil. Pour garlic-chili oil into bowl with tomatoes. Add eggplant and capers; toss well.
5. Add pasta to bowl with eggplant and tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste, and drizzle generously with oil. Toss in herbs and serve warm or at room temperature.