When I took my first bite of the bread dipped in the warm, red sauce my first thought was that the portion served in the tiny condiment bowl would nowhere near be enough. The next thought was yay for my husband holding back on the pre-dinner bread so there would be more for me. The dip looked like any tomato-based sauce, a little pink from what I guessed was a touch of cream but I found out later that I was incorrect. There was a flavor I couldn’t identify so I dipped and dipped until it was all gone, the source of the magic in the sauce eluding me.
The fact that this dipping sauce would turn out to be the only good part of our meal didn’t bother me at all. We had chosen the restaurant based on its proximity to our accountant’s office. My husband and I had an early-evening appointment; it was dark by the time we walked out of the building, we were feeling like Italian food and this place popped up on my search with decent reviews.
So the wine and pasta were bad. No problem. This sauce more than made up for it and the very nice Italian woman who had greeted us so warmly at the door was only too happy to share that the sauce was, “very easy, Madam. It is nothing more than roasted eggplant, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and olive oil.” I left the restaurant feeling like I had been given a treasure.
My husband and our friend agreed with this sentiment after tasting my version last week. The eggplant, the key ingredient, shines in this simple sauce. Not knowing the proportions the restaurant uses and whether or not the tomatoes are roasted or raw, the recipe I share below includes both–a result of trying to recapture the perfect balance between the eggplant and tomato that I loved so much in the restaurant’s version. The tomato flavor should be dominant with a touch or creaminess from Parmigiano-Reggiano, not cream as I had guessed initially. The idea is for the eggplant to play a supporting–but critical–role and it does in this rustic dip.
One pint of roasted tomatoes with one medium eggplant didn’t work for me so I added a handful of raw tomatoes to give the finished dip a lighter quality. The Parmigiano is key and I recommend using a good amount of it. And depending on your preference for a thick or smooth dip, add the olive oil accordingly. The red pepper flakes would add a nice kick if you like a little heat. Really, this recipe is simple and would be friendly to other enhancements like garlic and fresh herbs but I don’t think it needs it. More than just for bread I can see this sauce pairing well with roast chicken and even pasta. Use my recipe as a starting point and make it your own. You might be as enamored with it as I am. Just be sure to serve it warm.
- 1 medium eggplant, cut into one-inch cubes
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 3 small tomatoes (golf ball size)
- ½ - ¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Roughly 12 tablespoons olive oil
- Few pinches kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- Red pepper flakes, optional
- Preheat your oven to 400ºF. Toss the cubed eggplant and halved cherry tomatoes with two - three tablespoons of the olive oil on a baking sheet. Sprinkle a pinch or two of salt and some ground pepper (and red pepper flakes, if using). Roast for 30-35 minutes or until the eggplant has picked up some golden color.
- Transfer the roasted vegetables and the fresh tomatoes to a food processor or Vitamix and puree, drizzling half of the remaining olive oil. It will most likely need more salt so taste--add according to your taste. Transfer to a bowl and stir in more of the olive oil to suit your taste. I like mine a little looser so I used all the olive oil in the ingredient list. You may want to use less (or more). Stir in the grated Parmigiano, starting with ½ cup and adding more to taste. If the dip cools down too much, transfer to a small saucepan and heat over low heat before stirring in the Parmigiano.
- Serve warm with crusty bread.