I admit it. I’m an impulse shopper. I’m not drawn in by $XX.99 signs, buy 1 get half off deals or convenient displays at the checkout counter. Nope. I see something succulent or unusual at the produce department or in the butcher case and think, “Ooo, how cool. I’m sure I can find a use for this. You’re coming home with me.” Which brings me to tonight’s dinner. Sometimes irresistible things get buried in the veggie bin or put off by the daily trials and tribulations of life which means when I excavate them, they’re in need of immediate use, like 5 minutes ago. On a recent trip to my favorite Japanese market, I picked up some lovely Chinese eggplant planning to turn them into into 天ぷら tempura or roasting them in a Middle Eastern spiced stew but…that wilty looking aubergine got me to thinking about my favorite plump little dumplingish pasta. Gnocchi is my litmus test for a new Italian restaurant, cuz these humble, deceptively simple potato pasta dumplings, are tragically easy to turn into leaden rocks falling down into your stomach like Icarus plummeting to earth. Difficulties of producing light and pillowy gnocchi aside, there’s another pitfall of eating gnocchi and that would be those heavy sauces that make you go into a food coma after 3 bites. For some reason, gnocchi seems to be eternally bound with hearty bolognese or rich browned butter sauces that while delicious are so zaftig (I know, totally different part of Europe but I couldn’t help myself, such a satisfying word to roll around in your mouth!) that it takes the pleasing out of plump. By combining the creamy creamless-ness of the roasted eggplant with the tangy tomato that’s been mellowed out by the sweet carrot you get a light yet flavorful sauce for those pillowy pasta to swim in which would make this a puréed gnocchi alla Norma of sorts. And just in case you think this airy sauce is less than serious, those cherry tomatoes pack in 32% of the RDA for vitamin C, 25% of vitamin A, 1.8 g of fiber, 1.3 g of protein and only 27 calories in 1 cup, so there😉 Oh, and while the “creamy” eggplant may be light in the nutrient category (0.8 g protein, 5% potassium, 4% vitamin K) it’s got 2.8 g of fiber and 20 calories in just 1 cup making it another great low cal food.
You just had to ask…
1) So why do gnocchi (and dumplings) float when they’re done cooking? As they cook, any liquid they’re made of eventually is heated to its boiling point, turning into steam, and any air trapped in them will also be heated to its expansion point (take a “filled” helium balloon from a warm, 60-something degree room outside when it’s 20-some degrees and you’ll see it get saggy and shrunken as the air inside “shrinks” from decreased kinetic energy cuz heat is a gross measure of energy within a system, in this case the balloon) meaning that the innards have reached the boiling point of water and are “cooked.” The reason why they rise is cuz the heated air and steam in the gnocchi expand them ever so microscopically so that they become less dense allowing them to rise to the surface of the water and float like a boat on the waves. Of course, this is all for those of us at sea level cuz water becomes steam at a lower temperature as you gain altitude but I’m sure you mountain people already know that. More than you wanted to know, huh?
2) An eggplant is an eggplant is an eggplant, right? I prefer Asian varieties like Chinese or Japanese eggplant not just cuz I’m Asian but because they have thinner skins and fewer seeds which means more creamy flesh for me to gobble. The seeds are also responsible for the bitter taste in eggplant so less seeds is good in my book. If you’re using globe or other European varieties, I’d peel them first as the thick skins may take away from the velvety-ness of the sauce. Many cookbooks and recipes recommend salting eggplant to leach out any bitterness but as long as you have young eggplant you shouldn’t have a problem with bitterness as the bitterness come from the seeds and the younger the eggplant, the fewer the seeds.
1 + 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Chinese eggplant or small globe eggplant, in 2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small sweet onion, diced
1 small carrot ~1/2 c, peeled and diced
2 tsp (2 cloves) crushed garlic
1/4-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (depending on how spicy you like it)
1/2 tsp sea salt or 1/4 tsp regular salt
1 c cherry tomatoes or 1 c ripe tomato, diced
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1 tsp tomato paste
1 tsp cider vinegar
1/2 tbsp fresh (1/2 tsp dried) basil
2 tbsp heavy cream
2 tbsp shredded parmesan, optional
12 oz gnocchi
Oil a small baking pan with 1 tsp oil and add eggplant. Season with salt and pepper. Broil on highest rack till golden brown ~5 minutes.
Heat remaining 2 tsp olive oil in a large ~3 quart pot over medium heat till aromatic but not smoking. Sauté onion and carrots till softened and onions are translucent ~5 minutes. Add garlic, red pepper, and salt and sauté till garlic is golden ~1 minute. Stir in cherry tomatoes, canned tomatoes, eggplant, tomato paste, vinegar, and basil. Cover and simmer till tomatoes and eggplant are easily smashed with gentle pressure ~15-20 minutes. Using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor pulse till sauce is smooth. This is a pretty liquidy sauce but if it’s too thick just ladle in 1/4 c of the pasta and adjust as needed till you get the consistency you like.
Boil 6-8 cups water in a 2-3 quart pot. Boil gnocchi till they float to the surface then remove with a slotted spoon. Simmer gnocchi for 1 minute in sauce so they can soak up that creamy piquant sauce (don’t worry, 1 extra minute won’t overcook them). Sprinkle with parmesan if using. Makes 4 main dish servings or 6 side dish servings.
**Still not sure how happy I am with the estimated nutritional analysis of my recipes. Apparently this program thinks that cider vinegar is less nutritious than extra virgin olive oil?? Unless there are objections, I may return to just giving out specific factoids gleaned from the USDA nutrition archives cuz I know those are accurate….