September 14, 2011

Summer's End Pasta

There's a time in early September, when the days get noticeably shorter and the nights noticeably cooler, when some people - like me - become a bit remorseful. It's not because the lingering days of summer mean back-to-school and the end of long days at the beach (not exactly "my thing").  It's summer's end, and that means the end of summer produce. It means tomatoes, so intensely colorful and full of flavor, will soon disappear from the crates at farmers markets. Basil starts to die from cold nights. Fresh peas are long gone. Corn has gone to seed. You get the idea.

Every perfect tomato I eat, I have to ask, will this one be this year's last?

I don't mean to be dramatic, but during the six or seven months of cold weather we get in New England, roughly October to April, root vegetables only stay exciting for so long. Brussels sprouts are great, but not every night. Butternut squash is no longer appealing by early March. It takes little time for me to start dreaming of the spring and summer when the farmers market will sell more than rutabaga and jarred jam.

Which is why, by summer's end, I try to eat up as much summer produce as I can. This pasta dish, with cherry tomatoes, eggplant, arugula and feta cheese, is my attempt to feature some of that produce before it's long gone.  In addition to the pasta, there are four main ingredients to this dish, each which I hope holds its own. The cherry tomatoes are roasted, which turns them sweet and juicy and succulent. The eggplant gets simply sauteed in olive oil, a quick and relatively easy way to prepare eggplant. The arugula, which lends a fresh, peppery bite, gets no cooking at all, the heat of the pasta is enough to quickly wilt it. It's acts as both an herb and leafy green in this dish. Feta, besides perhaps mozzarella, is my go-to cheese in the summer (you might remember it from a few weeks ago in the Corn, Cucumber and Feta Salad). Its briny and salty yet maintains the flavor of a fresh, soft cheese, and I think it works brilliantly in warm dishes - I'd pair it with just about any summer vegetable. Which, I might add, won't be around for long.

Recipe below.

Summer's End Pasta
Serves 4-5

This pasta is a fairly straightforward combination of simply prepared produce. Feel free to change in or out any combination of fresh summer produce in this pasta.

-1 pound short pasta, like penne or rigatoni
-1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
-1 large eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
-2 cups baby arugula
-1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
-1/2 cup olive oil
-salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350.

2. Place the cherry tomatoes in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with 1/2 cup of the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Toss lightly to coat in the oil. Place in the oven for 20 minutes, until soft and beginning to break apart. Remove and set aside.

3. In the meantime, heat a large saute pan on medium-high heat. Add the other 1/2 cup of olive oil, allow to heat, and add the eggplant. Season generously with salt and pepper and toss in the olive oil. Stirring frequently, allow to cook for 15-20 minutes until cooked through. The eggplant will initially soak up the olive oil, and then release it once it is cooked. If it gets too dry during cooking, drizzle with a little more olive oil.

4. Cook pasta according to package instructions, and drain.

5. In a large bowl, mix the pasta, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, arugula and feta. The cherry tomatoes, together with the olive oil, should form a loose sauce. Add more olive oil and salt and pepper to your liking. Serve at once.