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Spaghetti with Smoked Eggplant

Image of eggplant
This culinary technique not only lends a subtle, intriguing, smoky flavor to the finished dish, but also allows you to drastically reduce the amount of oil traditionally used to soften this vegetable’s dense, fibrous flesh. Add soaked smoking chips to enhance the smoky flavor. In this modern, upscale rendition, the flavor of the eggplant is showcased by omitting onions and garlic (less prep work!), and is simply paired with a light, fresh-tasting, vine-ripened tomato sauce.

While raw eggplant can have a somewhat bitter taste, it develops a rich, complex flavor and soft texture when cooked. To facilitate this transformation, many recipes call for “disgorging” the fruit (salting eggplant slices on both sides, placing in a colander to drain for 30 minutes, then rinsing off the salt and patting it dry) to remove any bitterness and soften its flesh. Disgorging also prevents the eggplant from soaking up large amounts of oil during the cooking process— which can be up to 1 cup per eggplant! The downside is this process requires time and commitment—both in short supply with most of us today.

This recipe skips the salting and rinsing process, and utilizes the residual heat from your charcoal briquettes, along with smoke, to gently cook the eggplant. And, this cutting-edge culinary technique does triple duty if used after grilling last nights dinner: it conserves time, fuel and money by utilizing the last remnants of lingering heat, and transforms the eggplant without using large amounts of oil or salt—which is better for your health. Just put the eggplant on the grill while you’re eating dinner, and by the time you’re ready to do the dishes, the eggplant is done!

I tested this recipe several ways, and you’ll get the best results if you place the whole eggplant on the grill under two sheets of foil, which “steam-cooks” the aubergine creating a soft, creamy texture that’s reminiscent of a rich pudding. During this process, tiny micro-fissures appear in the tough skin, which allows the smoke to penetrate the flesh, lending a subtle, yet distinct, smoky grace note. It’s crucial to use the two sheets of foil under the aubergine to catch all the juices that escape during the cooking process, which pick up the taste of the smoke, and further enhance the smoky flavor in the finished dish when added to the fresh tomato sauce. Once the eggplant has cooled, place it in a covered container in the refrigerator overnight, and by the next morning, more smoky-flavored juices will have collected in the bottom of the container— vegetarian culinary gold that acts like a rich demi –glace in the fresh tomato sauce. (Do not cut the eggplant in half when placing it on the grill to speed up the cooking time: no juices are created, and the flesh dries out, while remaining tough and bitter without picking up any of the smoky taste—a culinary disaster that winds up in the trash.)

While my favorite smoking chips for this dish are white oak soaked in whiskey, which imparts a strong, smooth, smoky and slightly sweet taste, you’ll also get great results with earthy, smoky mesquite, or hickory, which lends a strong, smoky bacon-like taste. Topped with fresh basil and a sharp, Italian hard cheese, this “green-grilled” dish is summer eating at its best!

Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato, Smoked Eggplant and Basil
Serves: 2 as an entrée; 4 as an appetizer
Image of Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato, Smoked Eggplant and Basil
1 cup Char Broil’s white oak whiskey, hickory or mesquite smoking chips
1 large eggplant
1 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup finely, grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese

Fresh Tomato Sauce:
1/3 cup good olive oil
12 plum tomatoes, peeled, halved and seeded
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
10 basil leaves, chiffonade
13 Kalmata olives, pitted

Cover wood chips with water for 30 minutes, then drain and sprinkle ¾ cup over ash-colored, warm coals. Lightly oil eggplant, lightly season with salt and pepper and place on two sheets of foil. When smoke begins to appear, put foil-lined eggplant on the grate of the grill and cover with grill lid (vents quarter -closed). Smoke until eggplant softens, about 40 minutes. Turn eggplant over with tongs, and cover. Smoke for an additional 30 minutes. (If there is no longer any smoke, sprinkle more soaked wood chips over the coals). Remove eggplant, allow to cool and refrigerate overnight in a covered dish. The next day, scrape eggplant flesh from skin with a spoon and set aside.

In a 9-inch skillet, heat olive oil on medium-high heat till hot. Add tomatoes, lightly season with salt and pepper and cook until tomatoes begin to soften, about 5 minutes. With a potato masher, smash the tomatoes in the skillet until finely chopped. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for an additional 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Add smoked eggplant, collected juices and olives, then toss with two wooden spoon until heated through—about 4 minutes. Turn off heat and cover. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil on medium-high heat and add spaghetti. Cook until just almost of al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving ¼ cup of cooking water. Add pasta to the warm sauce, and cook on medium-high heat, gently tossing with 2 wooden spoons until heated through, about 8 minutes. Add pasta water, butter and toss again. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Take of heat and toss in basil. Place pasta on serving plates and sprinkle with cheese and serve

Notes from the Author:
Whiskey Smoker Chips are produced from a blend of American whiskey oak aging barrels and can be purchased at Barbecue’s Galore or online. If you don't have a charcoal grill, you can also use a gas grill with good results--set the heat on the back burner to the medium-low setting, and cook for approximately for 1 hour until the flesh is soft. Fresh tomato sauce can be made up to 2 days ahead, or frozen.
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