Taming but not extinguishing a powerful flavor: Linguine with Eggplant and Lamb

by Terry B on October 29, 2014

Linguine is topped with a hearty sauce of eggplant, ground lamb, crushed tomatoes, garlic, oregano and half and half. Recipe below.

Eggplant Lamb Pasta

In the 1939 film Tarzan Finds a Son, when Jane and Tarzan discover a baby in a plane crash, Jane insists that they must name him. The ever practical Tarzan says, “Him strong like elephant. We call him Elephant.” Jane, probably hoping for something more like Colin or Nigel, ultimately has to settle for Boy. Here in the United States, I think the eggplant must have suffered a similarly unimaginative fate: “It shaped like egg. We call it eggplant.”

In France, the UK and some other places, the eggplant goes by the much more poetic aubergine, a name it shares with a deep purple color (named for the eggplant’s beautiful dark, shiny skin).

Aubergine Horst Frank

You can’t help but wonder—at least I can’t—if that more colorful name might have made eggplant more popular than it is here. Would seeing aubergine (oh-behr-zheen) on a menu or on the produce shelf make it seem more elegant, more desirable? Naysayers would probably say, well, nay, citing eggplant’s distinctive bitter taste. All the while sipping their bitter coffee and nibbling on bitter dark chocolate.

Done right and in small doses, bitter can be a wonderful flavor note. It is specifically eggplant’s bitter edge that makes classic dishes like eggplant Parmigiana and moussaka such enduring favorites.

To salt or not to salt. One popular method for taming some of the bitterness in eggplant is to salt it a good half hour before cooking to leach out the bitter flavors. Just as many cooks these days, though, say it’s not necessary. Sometimes we do, other times we don’t. The best explanation I’ve found for salting or not salting and what it actually does comes from My Recipes. In essence, salting does make eggplant less bitter, but not because it draws out the bitterness. Salt just makes all bitter things taste less so. Salting does draw out moisture, firming up the eggplant. For dishes like the aforementioned eggplant Parmigiana, that helps the slices hold their shape better.

Also, the bigger the eggplant, the more pronounced the bitterness. For this recipe, I used a medium eggplant, about one pound. I didn’t salt it beforehand. The salt in the cooked dish, along with the half and half added at the end, nicely mellowed the eggplant’s bitterness, without causing it to totally lose its distinctive flavor.

Linguine with Eggplant and Lamb
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup Panko or other breadcrumbs
olive oil
1 28-ounce can peeled whole Italian tomatoes, such as San Marzano
12 ounces ground lamb
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano, divided
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound), unpeeled, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup half and half or cream

12 to 16 ounces uncooked linguine (see Kitchen Notes)

Do your prep work. This dish has a number of moving parts, but happens quickly in the end, so get everything ready up front. First, toast the breadcrumbs. In a large nonstick pan, heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over a medium flame. Add the breadcrumbs and toss to coat with oil. Cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate or shallow bowl and let cool completely.

Next, pour the tomatoes into a large bowl and crush the whole tomatoes by hand. Yes, you can buy crushed tomatoes, but this is fun—and authentically Italian. Do it.

In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over a medium-high flame. Add the ground lamb and season it with half of the oregano, salt and pepper. Brown the lamb for about 5 minutes. It doesn’t have to be really browned, just not pink. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate with a slotted spoon and set aside. Let the sauté pan cool slightly, then wipe it out with paper towels, but don’t wash it.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in the pan over a medium flame. Add the eggplant and toss to coat with oil. Brown for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Make a hole in the middle of the pan, drizzle in more oil (the eggplant will soak it up like crazy) and add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute, then toss with the eggplant and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.

Make another hole in the middle, drizzle in more oil (if needed) and add the minced garlic and remaining oregano. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add tomatoes and lamb to pan, stirring to combine and scraping up any browned bits. When mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in half and half and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions until just al dente. Drain and divide among shallow bowls. Top with eggplant sauce and sprinkle each serving with breadcrumbs. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

How much pasta? How many servings? With 12 ounces of pasta, this will generously serve 4 as a main course. With 16 ounces of pasta, you can stretch it to 6 servings as a primo or first course.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

[email protected] Riffs October 29, 2014 at 9:22 am

We really missed out by not calling eggplant aubergine. I love the way it rolls off your tongue! And it’s one of those really great vegetables that’s not nearly as popular as it should be. Probably part of it is the bitterness issue, although it’s been a long time since I’ve had an eggplant that was noticeably bitter (other than subtle background bitterness). I wonder farmers/scientist have bred a less bitter eggplant? Anyway, I rarely salt these days — just doesn’t seem necessary. Eggplant and lamb is such a nice combo! There’s a reason why classic pairings work. Wonderful idea to use it for a pasta sauce. Good recipe — thanks.

Anita October 29, 2014 at 3:23 pm

I haven’t had a bitter eggplant in eons… I also never salt. But then, I’ve also never gotten a really gritty leek, even when I buy at the farmer’s market, or stones in my legumes. I’m starting to believe these are all old cooks’ tales.

Quick question about the panko – isn’t it already toasted?

Also, I’m still planning on making last week’s chicken with prunes, but I was actually in your neck of the woods last weekend for a Lane Tech reunion! Was great fun, but it eliminated my Saturday shopping ritual; I’m currently eating things frozen in the past. I suspect I’ll soon be putting a few servings of this in the freezer.

Terry B October 29, 2014 at 4:34 pm

John, I vaguely remember reading something a while back about eggplant tending to be less bitter these days. Although I do think the size thing is part of the issue, and we’re seeing fewer gargantuan eggplants in stores now.

Anita, you must live a charmed life, at least in the produce department. And Lane Tech? That’s right by a couple of go-to supermarkets for us!

Terry B October 29, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Oh. And I failed to answer your question, Anita. At least the panko we buy is not toasted. It’s very pale. But it already does have more crispness to it—toasting enhances that and give it a nice golden color.

Lea Andersen December 1, 2014 at 8:55 pm

This recipe made me search about lamb meat. And from what I have read lamb meat, is an excellent source of protein. I have also read the nutrients that one can get with this meat. Read more about here:http://www.livestrong.com/article/381828-is-lamb-meat-healthy/

Terry B December 1, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Lea, we are huge fans of lamb. Besides having the protein and nutrients you mention, it is just plain delicious.

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