Genius Recipes

The Silkiest Pasta Sauce From Any Veg You've Got

Splendid Table host Francis Lam shares a Genius technique for the most luscious sauce you’ll make this summer.

July 28, 2021

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Founding Editor and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


This recipe started as the white flag in a feud with eggplant—its sponge-ish behavior, its peculiar demands for salt-leaching and vigilant frying—but it turns out to be a technique that can help you melt just about any vegetable into a rich, pasta-hugging sauce.

Huggable. Photo by Linda Xiao. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Francis Lam, the host of The Splendid Table and the vice president and editor in chief of Clarkson Potter, first wrote about the technique in 2009 for Gourmet’s website, and later for Salon’s, and—later still—I included it in the first Genius Recipes cookbook.

But for the first time, for this week’s video and podcast, I got to hear more from Francis about the genesis of the recipe and all the other liberating dinners we could be eking from it, in summer and beyond.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Seeing one previous comment I wonder if perhaps the eggplant used was an older (meaning it had been harvested some time before the sale) fruit/vegetable?”
— Barbara
Comment

No thanks to culinary school, Francis had thought there was only one right way to cook eggplant, and every summer, in the name of ratatouille, he’d go to battle with the fruit that is apparently also a vegetable (1). He’d salt, he’d cube, he’d oven-sear uncrowded batch after uncrowded batch, willing them not to smear into a pulp.

But after tasting a proudly ugly eggplant pasta at a restaurant in Rome (“a truly homely specimen” (2)), he wrote, “Why fight the eggplant and try to get neat, seared cubes? Let it be what it wants to be! Let it turn to mush! Let it soak up oil! Let us all be frank with ourselves.”

In addition to this permission to relax, the keys to Francis’ technique are, for starters, flavorful friends like garlic and thyme, and plenty of olive oil to carry them. Then, after a lazy, mostly covered simmer with a little liquid to help vegetable become sauce, all that's needed is a little prodding with a wooden spoon to finish the job.

And while eggplant is especially agreeable to drinking up garlicky, herby oil (and subsequently collapsing), you shouldn’t stop there. As The Wednesday Chef blogger Luisa Weiss wisely pointed out back in 2010, Francis’ basic method can be applied to just about any vegetable you’re not sure what to do with—some will just take more time or liquid to nudge them along.

Here are a few ideas to get you started: Luisa suggested zucchini with mint or parsley, or cauliflower with red pepper flakes (and Parm for both). On the podcast, Francis came up with everything from chile oil to capers to MSG for the eggplant. I’m ready to break out Marc Matsumoto’s grated dried shiitakes again, with a yellow pepper that’s been side-eyeing me all week.

How about you?

(1) It's a vegetable because we said so, writes our Kitchen Scientist columnist Nik Sharma.

(2) Beauty may be in the eye of the hungry. As my husband walked by the copy of the Genius Recipes book splayed open to this page, he said, “That looks so good.”

Got a Genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • MLHE
    MLHE
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    Picholine
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    Barbara
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    Ann
  • Ellen Greaves
    Ellen Greaves
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

21 Comments

MLHE August 22, 2021
ANY vegetable? Of course, I had to ask! And that is why I found salicornia and wondered if I could Francis Lim these 'sea beans' into a sauce for campanelle with button mushrooms, chopped marcona almonds, and a mix of grated parmesan with toasted breadcrumbs. Hmmm. Thanksgiving may be VERY DIFFERENT this year!
 
Picholine August 22, 2021
Can’t wait to try! Great demo Kristen. Would love the knife ! Where can I purchase ?
 
Barbara August 3, 2021
This eggplant recipe is a revelation! Prepared exactly according to the recipe I found this to be a no fail approach to lucious eggplant. I’ll definitely be making this again. Next time I will half the amount of pasta and double the eggplant……. It’s that delicious.
Seeing one previous comment I wonder if perhaps the eggplant used was an older (meaning it had been harvested some time before the sale) fruit/vegetable?
 
Ann August 3, 2021
Completely local, farm-stand fresh eggplant. And I halved the pasta. We just didn’t think it was flavorful. Not every recipe works for everyone.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
Thank you for reporting back!
 
Ann August 3, 2021
I can see I’m in the minority, but this recipe was underwhelming for my family. The eggplant—fresh and recently purchased—took forever to cook down and never really got “silky.” I finally had to stop cooking it or the pasta would have ruined. In the end, the dish was rather bland, even with the addition of capers. More garlic? Some hot pepper flakes? This needed something. A disappointment. We usually love Food 52 recipes but this one—not so much.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
I'm sorry to hear it, Ann—thank you for trying it and reporting back. Because eggplant doesn't have a ton of flavor on its own, I think the garlic really infusing into the oil and judicious salting are key here to bring out its flavor. The toughness is surprising, but there can certainly be a lot of variation in ripeness and variety of eggplant. I'm sorry it was a miss for you!
 
Ellen G. July 30, 2021
what a great technique. Thank you.
In a never-ending attempt to reduce food waste I always have little bits of odd liquids in the fridge, burrata brine, scrap broth (from the garlic skins and oregano stems generated by this recipe) etc. good to add instead of water. Also, of course, pasta cooking water to add extra silkiness.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
Love this!
 
Eric P. July 29, 2021
I saw a similar recipe that uses cucumber in lieu of eggplant, and no tomatoes. Supposedly, cukes make a very sweet sauce, but you have to cook them down longer because of the amount of liquid they have in them. It's on my list to try this weekend.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
How cool—let us know how it goes!
 
MLHE August 22, 2021
My first thought was "Would a cucumber work in this recipe?" This is why I adore Food52 so much...it is full of surprises!
 
mczerwinski July 29, 2021
Looking forward to trying the dish. I was tasting with my eyes!
 
Anito078 July 28, 2021
Hi! I'm sorry if I'm being intrusive but would you mind telling me what brand of skillet is the one you're using here?
Thank you in advance!
 
gvolkert July 28, 2021
I’m pretty sure the pans are AllClad pans. Definitely the skillet is as I have that exact same pan.
 
Anito078 July 29, 2021
Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
Yes, gvolkert is correct!
 
Andrew W. July 28, 2021
I think Francis might be wrong about using Gatorade as the liquid. I wouldn't go for Artic Blast or whatever, but a citrus flavor would probably work just fine. The electrolytes give it a kind of briny quality like capers and a squeeze of lemon is a must for many a classic pasta dish. I might give it a try and report back.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
Love this. The Gatorade reference was a nod to a story we shared in the Genius Recipe Tapes podcast, after a copy editor asked me cheekily if Francis's "whatever" in the list of possible liquids literally meant whatever ("Gatorade? Could you use that?"). Here's the episode: https://geniuspodcast.food52.com/
 
Kestrel July 28, 2021
I am surprised you don't need an apron to protect that adorable dress. I cannot work in the kitchen without one.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 5, 2021
I almost never wear one!