Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mediterranean Eggplant & Barley Salad

I taught a class this week called "The Bounty of Late Summer"—all about ways to use and enjoy the abundance that fills the Midwestern farmers' markets in August and September (eggplant, summer squash, peppers, tomatoes....). I included a recipe in the class for a Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad that I found several years ago in Gourmet. It is one of my favorite recipes. As I told my class, the variety of tastes and textures make this salad something a good friend would call "a party in your mouth". I mentioned this pilaf in a post I wrote last year on how to "build" a grain and vegetable pilaf but didn't think I would ever devote an entire post to it since the recipe is available on line at Epicurious. But every time I make it, I am struck by how good it is, so I thought I would go ahead and post it on my blog so that even more people will be exposed to this fantastic salad.

The recipe is self-explanatory and easy to execute as written...I will only elaborate on a couple of points. First, the barley. Make sure the barley is rinsed before it is added to the onion-spice base. This will rinse off some of the surface starch that might cause the final pilaf to be gummy. Any extra water that is still clinging to the grains will be removed when you cook the barley in the hot oil before adding the liquid. This brief sauté of the grain is important—it helps to harden off the surface starches (a further protection against stickiness). I always tell people when sautéing a grain for a pilaf, continue to cook and stir until the grain is well-coated in the hot fat and literally sizzling and snapping.

The other thing to pay close attention to is the roasting of the vegetables. If you are a novice when it comes to roasting vegetables, check out my post from last year on the basics. The most important thing to remember when making this pilaf is that while any vegetable will take on better color and remain more intact during the roasting process if it isn't stirred too much, it is particularly true of vegetables that become very soft when they are cooked (like eggplant and zucchini). Wait until the surfaces have begun to seal and you can see that they are beginning to color before you start to stir.

The eggplant and zucchini in this recipe are diced small and are cooked in a very hot oven—they only cook for about 20 to 25 minutes. They really shouldn't be stirred until after at least 15 minutes (near the end of the cooking time). Stirring too early or too frequently, will result in a lumpy pile of mashed eggplant and zucchini rather than a sheet pan filled with beautiful golden cubes of roasted vegetables. Not stirring them at all during the roasting process would be preferable to stirring them before the surfaces have had a chance to begin to caramelize.

And when/if you stir, be efficient and purposeful with your motions. The goal is to turn the vegetables over. Use a large pancake style turner to scoop under the vegetables (cleanly releasing them from the sheet) and then flip them over. When all of the vegetables have been turned over, give the sheet pan a quick shake to make sure the vegetables are once again in an even, single layer. Simply "stirring" randomly will encourage the vegetables to break apart.

The recipe directs you to use two cookie sheets. This is not just a way to get you to dirty more dishes. It is to make sure that the vegetables aren't too crowded while they are roasting. If they are crowded and piled on top of one another, they won't caramelize well (if at all) and are more likely to cook into a steamy, lumpy blob. The vegetables need to be in a single layer on the sheets—and not too crowded—so that the moisture in the vegetables has room to escape as they cook. These vegetables are full of water. You will be amazed at the amount of steam they give off during early stages of the roasting process. When you open the oven at the half way point to rotate the pans, you will be greeted by a cloud of steam (which you will particularly notice if you wear glasses). When the vegetables are done roasting, wait for them to stop steaming before you combine the two pans.

Recently I have begun to occasionally prepare this pilaf with Semi-Pearled Farro instead of Pearled Barley. It is delicious either way, but I think I may even like the Farro version better. If you do prepare the pilaf with Farro, you will need less liquid. Reduce the total amount to 2 cups. As with the Barley, rinse the Farro before adding it to the hot fat.

I have also successfully prepared this dish with water in place of the chicken stock. I think the recipe was written with canned stock in mind, so there is no mention of adding salt to the grain while it cooks. If you use water, you will need to salt the water in which the Barley (or Farro) is cooked.  A nice advantage of using water, is that it makes this a vegetarian dish. Another advantage of using water instead of stock is that you can feel a little bit better about making this salad for a picnic or potluck. Foods sit out at unsafe temperatures for long periods of time at potlucks and picnics—far longer than would be advisable for something prepared with a meat stock.

This recipe makes copious quantities of salad. But this is actually a good thing since it keeps well—neither the Barley or the Farro will become soggy. The salad is also highly portable, so besides making an excellent contribution to a picnic or potluck, the leftovers make good lunchbox fare. Add a piece of cheese and something tasty for dessert (some fresh fruit...or a brownie...) and your coworkers will be eyeing your lunch with envy.

Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad

1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, white & green kept separately
1 1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. ground coriander
1/8 to 1/4 t. cayenne, to taste
1 1/4 c. pearl barley (8 oz.), rinsed
1 3/4 c. chicken stock
3/4 c. water
1 1/2 lb. eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 lb. zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
10 T. olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered, depending on their size
1/3 c. Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted & halved
1/2 c. thinly sliced red onion, rinsed & drained
2/3 c. coarsely chopped parsley
1/4 to 1/2 c. basil or mint chiffonade

Heat 2 T. oil in a 3- to 4- quart heavy pot over medium to medium high heat. Add the white part of the scallions and cook until tender. Add the cumin, coriander and cayenne and cook a moment more, or until fragrant. Add the barley and cook, stirring, until well coated with oil and sizzling—about 2 minutes. Add the broth and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the barley is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes.

While the barley cooks, arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Toss the eggplant and zucchini in a generous amount of olive oil (about 5 T.) and season with salt & pepper. Spread the vegetables between 2 rimmed baking sheets. Roast the vegetables at 425°. To insure even cooking, rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom half way through the cooking time. Do not stir the vegetables until they have begun to take on some color—and then do so carefully, using a pancake turner-type spatula to scoop the vegetables off the sheet and turn them over. You should only need to stir once...if at all. The vegetables are done when they are golden and tender—about 20 to 25 minutes total. Cool briefly before combining the vegetables in one of the pans. Let them cool completely while the barley finishes cooking.

When the barley is done cooking, transfer it to the second vegetable pan (now empty) and spread so it will cool quickly to room temperature—this should take 20 minutes or so.

In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic and salt & pepper. Whisk in 3 T. olive oil. Add the barley, roasted vegetables and all of the remaining ingredients and toss to combine well.

Serve at room temperature as an accompaniment to grilled meat or chicken or as an entrée with a few slices of Ricotta Salata or Feta. Serves 4 to 6 as a main course and 8 as a side dish.

Note: The salad can be made ahead. Store, covered, in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Variation: The salad is excellent made with Semi-Pearled Farro instead of Pearled Barley. Reduce the total amount of liquid from 2 1/2 cups to 2 cups. The Farro will cook in 25 to 30 minutes. When it is tender, allow it to rest (covered) for 5 minutes as for the Barley.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet, September 2006)

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