Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mediterranean Eggplant Salad with Mint, Pine Nuts & Goat Cheese

For an upcoming class I am slated to teach a "Grilled Eggplant Salad". I had been planning on teaching a salad that featured eggplant in combination with tomatoes and bell peppers. But as I thought about it, I realized that I almost always pair eggplant with one—or both—of these vegetables. A quick review of my four previous posts that feature eggplant will bear this out. Since I don't want to be too predictable, I decided that for this salad I would do something a little bit different (for me at least).

Whenever you cook with eggplant you have to take into account the fact that eggplant is a slightly bitter vegetable. Eggplant sometimes gets a bad rap as being excessively bitter, but this is only the case if it has been on the shelf too long. (Click here for some pointers on how to choose an eggplant). Like many other vegetables (Brussels sprouts, various greens, broccoli, etc.) the slight bitterness can be quite pleasant when the vegetable is prepared properly and paired with the right kinds of flavors. Often bitter foods are combined to great advantage with foods that are inherently sweet and/or acidic. Greens with vinegar is a good example of this. This agreeable pairing of the sweet and the tart with the bitter is the reason that eggplant is so frequently combined with tomatoes and ripe bell peppers. The tomatoes contribute both sweetness and acidity, while the ripe bell pepper contribute sweetness.

The decision not to include tomatoes or bell peppers in my salad meant that I would need to find other ways of taming the natural bitterness of the eggplant—bitterness that would be accentuated by the fact that the eggplant in the salad was to be grilled. In Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, I found a recipe for eggplant that is roasted and then bathed while still warm in a lemony dressing that is loaded with garlic and herbs. Lemon is frequently used to successfully dress eggplant, so I decided that I would use a similar tart lemon and herb vinaigrette as the starting point for my salad.

The rest of the ingredients seemed to fall into place at that point. I love the combination of lemon and mint, so I decided to get the sweetness I was looking for by adding a healthy dose of mint to the dressing. To contribute yet another element of sweetness, I layered the grilled eggplant rounds with some smoky-sweet charred red onions.

I borrowed the idea for the charred onions from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita. Apparently these onions show up in various ways all over his restaurant menu....added to salads, pizzas, sandwiches and as the main ingredient in his signature charred onion dip. It's easy to see why:  they are simple to prepare and add loads of flavor. For my salad, besides adding sweetness, the smoky aspect of these onions plays especially well with the eggplant.

Inspired by an eggplant salad I found by Giada De Laurentiis, the salad is finished with a shower of sweet toasted pine nuts and tangy crumbled goat cheese. Feta would make a fine stand in for the goat cheese. Or, you could forgo cheese altogether and add a drizzle of plain yogurt instead. Like the goat cheese it would provide a nice subtle tang to the salad.

The flavors of this salad can only be described as vibrant and refreshing—perfect for the extended heat wave that we have been experiencing. For those pressed for time, it is simple, quick and easy to prepare. It is also quite versatile. It could be served as a side dish for chicken or lamb. It would also make a great salad platter to take to a pot luck, put on a buffet or add to a tapas spread. And since it is best served at room temperature, all of the components can be prepared ahead...making it a perfect dish for summer entertaining.

Mediterranean Grilled Eggplant Salad

4 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
4 T. minced fresh mint
4 T. minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
pinch hot pepper flakes (to taste)
6 T. olive oil, plus more for brushing
Salt & Pepper
2 medium eggplant (about 2 lbs.)
2 medium or 1 large red onion (about 12 oz.), peeled and sliced crosswise about 1/3-inch thick
about 1 t. Balsamic vinegar
3 to 4 T. pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 to 4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled

Place the lemon juice in a small bowl with the garlic and whisk to combine. Add the herbs, pepper flakes and 6 T. olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Top and tail the eggplants. Slice each eggplant crosswise into 1/3- to 1/2-inch thick rounds. Spread the eggplant on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Broil the eggplant until golden brown; turn and broil the other side in a similar manner. Alternatively, grill the eggplant over a charcoal fire or in a cast-iron grill pan. If, when the eggplant are nicely browned, they are not yet fork tender, stack them on top of one another while hot so that they will steam one another and cook through—eggplant should not be served al dente.

While the eggplant are still warm, dress them with one third to one half of the lemon-herb mixture. Let stand at room temperature for up to two hours before serving.

Spread the onion slices on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Broil (or grill), turning once, until golden, charred in spots, and tender.

Transfer to a plate, drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss to break up and distribute the vinegar.

To build the salad, on a large platter arrange the eggplant in one layer of slightly overlapping slices. Top with the onions, a scattering of pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese. Spoon some of the remaining lemon-herb mixture over all and serve. If you don't have a platter large enough to accommodate the eggplant in a single layer, build the salad in multiple layers—eggplant, onions, pine nuts, sauce—topping the final layer with goat cheese.

The marinated eggplant and onions can be made ahead and refrigerated. But the salad is best served at room temperature. Accordingly, if the components have been made ahead, allow all the ingredients to come to a room temperature for an hour or so before building and serving the salad.  Serves 6 to 8.

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