This year on my birthday I wanted nothing more than a simple home-cooked meal. Brian offered to treat me to dinner out at a restaurant of my choosing, but knowing that I would be traveling to Chicago for work in a few days, I opted to make dinner for myself.
Don’t worry, even though he didn’t cook, my husband did come home that evening with a beautifully decorated miniature sized Brooklyn Blackout Cake from Two Little Red Hens Bakery. If you live in New York and like chocolate, you must try this cake. Dark chocolate pudding is sandwiched between layers of chocolate cake before being frosted with a layer of chocolate buttercream and cake crumbs. It sounds divine, and I assure you that it is.
But I digress, because this post is not about chocolate, but about pasta and eggplant. My close friends and family all know that I adore eggplant. I love it in every form, from eggplant parmigiana to baba ganoush. But I also love my mom’s simple homemade tomato sauce with pasta and copious amount of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. After much debate, I decided to make a dinner that would satisfy both my craving for eggplant and pasta, and my desire to make something new and slightly special for my birthday.
This pasta sauce was inspired by a recipe that I saw a few
months ago which my mom tried at home and raved about. Poaching the garlic in olive oil makes a huge difference! It tames the garlic, leaving you with soft cloves that are delicate and very sweet. An added bonus is that you can use the leftover garlic-infused olive oil in other recipes. for example, with sauteed spinach or kale, or even as a dipping oil with crusty bread.
The recipe looks labor-intensive, but it’s actually quite simple to make, especially if you poach the garlic ahead of time. The night before my birthday I cooked an entire head of garlic cloves in barely simmering olive oil. Once the garlic was soft (it only takes about 20 minutes), I took the pan off the heat and let the oil cool before placing both the garlic and infused olive oil in the refrigerator in a covered glass measuring cup.
The following day, I quickly toasted and ground the fennel seeds in a spice grinder, roasted the eggplant in the oven and made the sauce. I let the sauce simmer for 30 minutes and then tossed it with cooked pasta and loads of fresh basil.
Both Brian and I loved this sauce. The ground fennel adds a great aromatic quality and warmth to the sauce, while not overpowering the eggplant or tomatoes in any way. Capped off with salad on the side, good wine, and chocolate cake for dessert, and I was one happy girl.
Fettuccine with Eggplant, Olive-Oil Poached Garlic and Tomato-Fennel Sauce
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- one head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 26-ounce box of Pomi Chopped Tomatoes
- 1 26-ounce box of Pomi Strained Tomatoes
- 1 bunch fresh basil leaves
- 1 dried bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1.75 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes (I used small Holland eggplant, but any variety will work here)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound dried pasta (I used fettuccine, but any shape will do here)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiono cheese (for garnish)
To make the sauce:
- Fill a small, good-quality metal saucepan with ¾ cup of extra virgin olive and the peeled garlic cloves.
- Place the pan on the stove and bring the olive oil to a simmer over low heat (the olive oil should barely bubble). Continue to cook over low heat until the garlic cloves are soft and a pairing knife can easily slice through the cloves, approximately 20-25 minutes.
- Take the pan off the heat and allow the olive oil to cool to room temperature.
- Strain the garlic cloves and reserve the infused olive oil for the sauce. The olive oil and garlic can either be used immediately or stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
- In a small, dry sauté pan (don’t add oil), toast the fennel seeds over medium heat until they begin to turn golden and fragrant, approximately 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Place the fennel seeds in a spice grinder and pulse until the seeds are very finely ground. Set aside for later use.
- Heat a large, wide saucepan over low heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the garlic-infused olive oil to the pan and the raw, minced garlic. Cook until the garlic just barely begins to turn golden. Add the ground fennel, chopped tomatoes, strained tomatoes, a large sprig of basil, the dried bay leaf, red pepper flakes, and a few turns of ground black pepper. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
- Add the roasted eggplant cubes to the sauce and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
To roast the eggplant:
- Move one of the racks to the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Toss the cubed eggplant with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place the eggplant on a sheet pan in a single layer and roast until golden brown and caramelized, approximately 20 minutes, tossing once during the cooking process so as not to burn the eggplant.
- Remove from the oven and set aside.
To cook the pasta:
- Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water boils, liberally salt the water (it should taste like ocean water).
- Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package and drain in a colander over the sink.
- Place the cooked pasta, tomato sauce and additional basil leaves in a large pot or mixing bowl and combine.
- Serve immediately in individual serving bowls or on plates with additional Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.