Every time I make this dish I am surprised by how good it is. I'm sure that the fabulous flavor of this salad is primarily due to the cooking process. The word Escalivada comes from the verb escalivar which means "to roast in the coals or ashes" or "to char". You could patiently and slowly grill all of the ingredients for this salad to make it very authentic, but most recipes that I have come across just roast all of the vegetables in a hot oven. I have seen several recipes that recommend a hybrid approach where the vegetables are first charred—either over a flame or under a broiler—and then cooked to tenderness in a hot oven. This method would probably produce a very pleasant smokiness that is missing from the oven method.
While cooking method is important, of equal importance is the freshness and quality of the ingredients used to prepare the salad. With the simple cooking technique used and the minimal ingredient list, the resulting salad could be very disappointing if it were made with marginal or old vegetables. The good news is that all four of the main ingredients are in abundant supply at the farmer's market right now. It's the perfect time to make it.
Choosing garden fresh eggplant is particularly important when making Escalivada. Eggplant that has been sitting around too long has begun to break down and produces a lot of bitter liquid when roasted. The recipe directs you to peel the roasted eggplant, halve it lengthwise and place it in a colander to drain away any bitter juices. But the last two times I have made this salad with farm fresh eggplant, there has been almost no liquid to drain—super fresh eggplant seems to still have the capacity to retain its moisture, making for plump, juicy flesh.
When you shop for an eggplant, look for specimens that are heavy for their size and firm, but not hard. When you gently squeeze one, it should feel springy—but there should not be a depression left behind. Don't purchase an eggplant that is soft or bruised or blemished. A fresh eggplant will have a stem that looks recently cut. Also, on older eggplants, the green "cap" can look as if it is beginning to separate from the eggplant itself.
The process of peeling, seeding and coring the roasted vegetables is a bit of a messy, hands-on operation. The vegetables will have become quite soft during their long roast and will tend to fall apart as you work with them. In fact, most recipes simply tell you to tear the flesh of the eggplant and peppers into long strips. (I like all of the pieces to be bite-sized, so I cut them into large chunks instead.) The tomatoes will practically fall apart in your hands as you wrestle the firm core away from the soft flesh. Anything that isn't already in a bite-sized chunk after this operation can easily be torn into an appropriate-sized piece.
I like to work over a sieve set over a bowl as I peel, seed and core the peppers and tomatoes. Both will release liquid as you work and it seems a shame to throw this source of flavor away. If the resulting strained liquid is minimal, just add it back to the salad. Sometimes there will be an abundance of pepper and tomato juices. In that case, I take an extra step and put the juices into a saucepan and reduce them until they are syrupy before adding them to the salad. You should do what pleases you.
The measurements for the individual vegetables that make up Escalivada are kind of inexact. I tend to think of it as an eggplant salad with the onion, tomato and peppers acting as supporting players. But you will find recipes with a higher proportion of peppers and tomatoes. It is really not a salad where the ingredients need to be measured at all. If you open your refrigerator and pull out an eggplant and a pepper—or two, depending on the size of the eggplant—and then turn to your pantry to choose a couple of tomatoes and an onion (choosing sizes that look proportionately like they are a good match for the ingredients you have already selected)—you can't go wrong.
As far as the vinaigrette is concerned, you can mix it up separately and add enough to generously coat the vegetables as I have directed in the recipe. Or, you can simply add each of the individual components of the vinaigrette (garlic, sherry vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil) to the vegetables to taste. Occasionally you will find a recipe that uses red wine vinegar instead of sherry vinegar, or a recipe without the lemon juice—but by and large the seasonings used in this salad are pretty standard.
A couple of final notes: Make sure that you season the vegetables well when you start to combine them. Because they are roasted whole, it isn't possible to salt them during the cooking process. Salting them insufficiently afterwards will make for a flat tasting salad. Do try and make the salad an hour (or a day) ahead of time. Not only will this give the flavors time to blend, it will give the vegetables a chance to absorb the salt.
Finally, I have to tell you that when you begin to mix the vegetables you will find that they look decidedly unpromising. At least I think they do. They are in rough pieces and are all mixed together but for some reason they still look sort of separate and individual. Then, something magical happens when the vinaigrette is added. Instead of separate pieces of vegetables, the salad turns into a glistening mass of something that could be called a vegetable marmalade. It is beautiful. And it tastes amazing.
Besides making a great tapa (on its own as a salad, or on top of grilled bread), Escalivada is great served as a side to grilled or roasted meat or fish. Some experts frown on serving it cold (it is generally served warm or at room temperature), but I had some straight out of the refrigerator with a plain cheese quesadilla for lunch one day and it was pretty great. I think it would be good with eggs, too, or maybe with a wedge of Tortilla Española. Make some for yourself and your friends while eggplant is fresh and abundant and I imagine you will find some favorite combinations of your own.
1 medium Red Onion (about 6 oz.)
1 medium to large Eggplant (3/4 to 1 lb.)
1 or 2 Red Bell Peppers (about 1/2 lb.)
2 medium Tomatoes (about 10 oz.)
1/4 c. olive oil, plus more for brushing vegetables
1 T. sherry vinegar
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1 t. fresh Lemon Juice (optional)
Salt & Pepper
1 to 2 T. minced flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Rub the vegetables with a light coating of olive oil. Prick the eggplant several times with a fork or sharp knife. Place the onions, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes on a baking sheet or in a baking dish and place in the oven.
The vegetables will take differing amounts of time to cook. Be prepared to remove them as they are ready. The tomatoes, peppers & eggplant will take about 40 to 45 minutes. The eggplant should be soft—a knife will easily penetrate to the center. The peppers and tomatoes should have blistered, cracked skin and they should be tender. The onions will take a total of 1 to 1 1/4 hours until they are tender. Turn the vegetables occasionally as they roast.
While the vegetables roast, combine the garlic and vinegar in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Season with salt. Add the oil in a thin stream, while whisking constantly. If you like, whisk in the lemon juice. Taste and correct the seasoning.
As the vegetables finish roasting, set them aside to cool until they can be comfortably handled.
Peel the eggplant and place in a colander to drain if there is an excessive amount of liquid; discard the liquid (it can be quite bitter) and cut the flesh into 1 1/2 inch cubes (see the photo above). Peel and seed the peppers, collecting and reserving the liquid from the peppers; cut the peppers into wide strips, halving the strips horizontally if they are very long. Peel and core the tomatoes; tear each into 4 or 5 pieces, collecting and reserving their juices. Peel and top and tail the onion. Halve the onion lengthwise and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips.
Place all of the vegetables in a bowl. Toss with enough vinaigrette to generously moisten all of the vegetables. If you like, add some of the pepper and tomato liquid back to the vegetables (as long as doing so doesn't make them too watery). Season well with salt. Stir in the parsley.
Let the salad sit at room temperature for at least an hour before serving. Escalivada may be served warm or at room temperature. You will find some sources that frown on serving it cold, but I think it is delicious cold. As a tapa, serve as a salad or a topping for grilled bread. It also makes a good side dish. Makes about 2 cups, serving 4.