Cinnamon and cocoa powder.
Reminiscent of a decadent dessert, no?
Well, what if I told you that these two flavors could form the incredible basis for one of the best savory summer dishes you'd tasted yet? Would you believe me?
I promise you I'm not blowing smoke.
The truth is, when I came back from a week's vacation in Wisconsin's North Woods on Saturday, the last thing I expected was to be making a dish with cocoa powder, cinnamon, and eggplant. But, life is an unexpected thing. And sometimes it surprises you.
The fairytale begins... once upon a time, with a few pounds of "Hansel & Gretel" eggplants from the West Allis farmer's market (stereotypically, the "Gretel" eggplants are smaller and white; "Hansels" are slightly larger and black).
I'd always been inspired by Greek dishes (like moussaka) that combine cinnamon and eggplant. And I'd recently read something about Sicilian caponanta made with a pinch of cocoa powder -- meant to tame the bitterness in eggplant. So, the concept really wasn't at outlandish as it seemed.
I chopped up the eggplant, along with a couple of sweet Wisconsin-grown Walla Walla onions. And I tossed them with a bit of cinnamon and cocoa powder. I arranged them on a baking sheet and Peef drizzed them with a bit of olive oil. Then we tossed them into a 425ºF oven to roast.
While the eggplant was roasting, I chopped up some raw walnuts -- which we'd add to the roasting eggplant about 10-15 minutes before it was finished roasting.
Peef stepped outside to pick a handful of fresh Italian parsley from the herb garden.I chopped the parsley and added it, along with about a cup of grated pecorino romano, to a tub of whole milk ricotta cheese.
We whipped the cheese and parsley together and set it aside for a bit while we cooked up some orecchiette pasta.When the pasta was finished cooking, we added it to the ricotta cheese mixture, along with some of the pasta water.
About the same time, we noticed an incredible aroma emanating from the oven and wafting throughout the kitchen. It was sweet -- and yet, somehow, not sugary. The odor of the cinnamon was unmistakeable, but the cocoa powder was... less obvious. It melded strangely (yet solidly) with the scent of the rapidly caramelizing onions. And, somehow, the whole entourage married itself to the roasting eggplant, forming a complex union. When we took the steaming pans from the oven, we couldn't resist sneaking a taste.
OhMY! It was positively fabulous.
We mixed the eggplant and onions with the creamy ricotta cheese and we held our heads over the top of the serving bowl to take in the full aroma.
Creamy, but not heavy. Sweet and caramelized, but definitely savory. The walnuts not only brought forward a distinct nuttiness, but they added a nice bit of texture to an otherwise smooth dish. A bit of crusty garlic bread, and we were all set.
I love it when dinner turns out with a fairytale ending.
Hansel & Gretel Pasta: Orecchiette with Roasted Eggplant & Ricotta
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