I have been making one version or another of this sauce since James and my early days together in “Dog Town,” a dilapidated neighborhood in Ellensburg, Washington, where we were both attending Central Washington University. We still make a yearly day trip to Ellensburg when the lilacs are blooming and are amazed that we once lived in that tiny, rundown house on the outskirts of town. However, that tiny house and gargantuan yard had 4 things that I LOVE: solitude, numerous huge lilac bushes, a large farmhouse-style kitchen with room for our red lacquered picnic table and a screen door that opened and then banged closed with precisely the same creaking sound as Grandma Maisie’s screen door in Kentucky. I regularly went out that back door just to hear the sound of it opening and closing.
Sometime in those happy first couple of years together, I discovered a cookbook that defined that period of our lives: The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. And even though I was teaching a 10-week course at the university on the art of French cooking (only a lesson or two ahead of my students), what I cooked for us at home were Anna’s simple, tasty, affordable dishes. We weren’t even vegetarians.
I am looking at that scruffy book now, held together only by yellowed tape. Almost every page is covered with my barely legible notes, such as “make triple batch for large blue casserole,” and “James’ favorite onion quiche.”
The Eggplant Pasta Sauce on page 246 contains a couple of my early revisions. Today’s recipe barely resembles its predecessor, but the idea is the same: namely, a piquant tomato-olive-wine sauce with generous quantities of sweet peppers and eggplant.
This hearty, almost meaty, sauce is one of the first dishes I make each fall in the Northwest. In September, farmers markets are overflowing with eggplant, bell peppers, and ripe heirloom tomatoes. The colors and flavors are amazing together.
Thank you, Anna Thomas, for the inspiration and for enriching our lives with your memorable dishes.
Spicy Eggplant Tomato Sauce
This chunky, flavor-packed, and highly addictive sauce is wonderful in the fall and winter over pasta or polenta, quickly sautéed whole button mushrooms, or steamed and buttered cauliflower florets.
Serving Note Use 1 quart of sauce for 1 pound of dried pasta or 1½ pounds of either vegetable. Top with 3 to 4 ounces of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Storing Note Any remaining sauce may be frozen for up to 3 months.
¼ cup olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons dried basil, crumbled
2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more if you want the sauce extra-spicy)
20 Calamata olives, pitted and sliced (about ½ cup)
20 green olives, pitted and sliced (about ½ cup)
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in hot water to soften, drained, and then chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large globe eggplant or 2-3 smaller Italian eggplants (1½ pounds), stemmed, then diced
2 green bell peppers, cored, seeded, and diced (or orange or yellow bell peppers)
3 pounds cored, skinned, seeded, chopped, ripe heirloom tomatoes (or three 14 1/2 ounce cans diced tomatoes)
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
2 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped or torn
1 tablespoon fresh basil, torn
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- In a large skillet, heat the oil.
- Add, and then slowly sauté the onions with the dried basil, dried oregano, and crushed red pepper until softened but not brown, about 20 minutes.
- Stir in the olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and garlic, and sauté for a few minutes more to meld the flavors.
- Add bell peppers and eggplant, and stir to coat with oil. Sauté briefly, about 2 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, red wine, vegetable broth, and tomato paste. Simmer very slowly for about 40-60 minutes, adding a little more stock if the sauce becomes too thick.
- Add fresh oregano and basil, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve hot over sautéed mushrooms, steamed cauliflower, sautéed polenta, or cooked pasta.
- Garnish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese if desired.
Makes 2 quarts sauce.