Healthier Party Food: Eggplant Agrodolce with Pinenuts

When we throw a party, we like to start early. Happy-hour-style drinks mean we can enjoy our balcony (a rarity in Manhattan) with friends while the sun is still out. The problem, though, is that starting a party early means folks won’t necessarily have eaten dinner. As the night goes on, having plenty of good food to offer is essential. People don’t actually want to make a meal of brie and crackers.

That’s where this sweet and sour Eggplant Agrodolce comes in. I’ve learned over the years that I become a stressed, panicky mess if I leave too much party prep to the last minute. I need recipes that can be prepared the night before and tossed onto the table as guests arrive. I make a variety of easy spreads and dips, and a killer garlicky white-bean bruschetta, but I was drawn to this recipe from Andrew Carmellini’s gorgeous Urban Italian because it’s a little more substantial and fresh-tasting. It’s vegetarian, and pretty healthy, and totally works as a make-ahead dish (though I did microwave it for a minute to take the chill off before serving.)

I used regular eggplants, not the lovely slender Japanese sort, because a person can only go to so many grocery stores before a party, and I’d already hit my limit. Carmellini  warns that this is a dangerous swap, and suggests salting them in a colander for half an hour, but I simply removed the ends (which can be bitter) and skipped the salting. It worked out fine. I’ve actually read that salting can adversely affect the egpplant’s texture, so if you’re using fresh eggplants, I’d skip it…

I also scattered a handful of toasted pine nuts over the eggplant before serving. The earthy nuts balance the sweet-and-sour sauce, grounding the tangy flavor a bit. Be sure to cut the eggplant small if you’re intending this as finger food—large slices are a little intimidating to party guests, especially if they have a glass of wine in hand.

Eggplant Agrodolce
Adapted from Andrew Carmellini, Urban Italian
I doubled the recipe for a large party, but we didn’t really need that much.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, at least.
2 Japanese eggplant, sliced 1/2″ thick, or 1 large Italian eggplant, ends removed
1 small red onion, chopped
2 T honey
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup marinara (I’ll admit, I used jarred)
6 large mint leaves, sliced into ribbons
6 basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup toasted pinenuts
1 T grated Parmesan

Heat half of the olive oil on medium-high heat in a wide pan (I used a deep saute pan. Two batches may be necessary—do not crowd the eggplant.) Add the eggplant slices to the pan and brown evenly on both sides. It will soak up the oil as it cooks, so add the other half of the olive oil when you turn the slices. More oil—up to another 1/4 cup—may be needed.) Set aside the finished slices, leaving the oil in the pan.

When you’ve cooked all the eggplant, add the onion to the oil in the pan and sauté gently for two minutes, stirring frequently. Add the honey to the onions and stir together so the honey begins to bubble. Deglaze with the vinegar and let the mixture reduce by half. Add the marinara and stir to coat.

Return the eggplant to the pan and mix it in. Simmer on low for five minutes, so that the eggplant absorbs the flavor of the sauce. They will soften slightly. When the eggplant is cooked (taste a piece), remove the pan from the heat.

If you are serving immediately, continue with garnishing. Otherwise, let cool and refrigerate overnight.

To complete: add most of the mint and basil to the eggplant mixture and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place in a serving bowl and garnish with additional mint and basil, pine nuts, and parmesan. Serve with bread (toasted or just freshly sliced.)

In eggplant, make-ahead., parties, vegetarian

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