Sunday, September 21, 2014

Zaalouk: Moroccan Mashed Eggplant and Tomato Salad

I can't let summer slip into autumn without sharing one of my new favorite summer recipes:  a Moroccan eggplant and tomato salad called Zaalouk.  I included it as part of a meze spread (along with olives, homemade ricotta and crisp, olive oil-drizzled toasts) in a class I taught early in the summer featuring Mediterranean foods. I have intended all summer long to post the recipe....but the summer kind of got away from me this year.  Since autumn will begin tomorrow has to be the day.

The salad is super easy to prepare.  To make it, simply roast whole eggplant and then allow the flesh to drain of as much of the bitter liquid as possible.  While the eggplant cooks and drains, prepare a concentrated, garlic, cumin and paprika spiked tomato sauce.  To finish, mash the eggplant in to the sauce and season with salt and lemon juice.  When the salad is cool, add fresh cilantro and parsley.  That's it.

For such a simple recipe, Zaalouk is loaded with flavor.  But since it is a recipe of few ingredients, good results will depend on high quality ingredients and good technique.  Look for eggplant that are heavy for their size and recently harvested (the stem should look recently cut and the green cap should still be snuggly anchored to the fruit).  The eggplant shouldn't have any soft, sponge-y parts...but neither should it be rock hard.  As far as the tomatoes are concerned, look for dead ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes.       

When it comes to technique, first, take the time to really drain the eggplant well.  Even if the juices aren't bitter (they won't be if the eggplant is super fresh), failure to drain the eggplant thoroughly will result in a watery salad.  

Part of what makes this salad special is the concentrated flavors of the vegetables.  Likewise, the tomato sauce too should be reduced until thick.  When finished, it will have a glossy sheen and a rubber spatula or wooden spoon drawn through the sauce will leave a path.

Like all dishes that involve a chunky purée of roasted eggplant, getting the uninitiated to give it a try can be a bit of a trick (smashed, roasted eggplant isn't the most attractive thing).  However, once people do try this deeply flavorful dish, they can't seem to get enough.  Served salad-style—accompanied by a few olives—it is pretty great.  But my favorite way to enjoy it is on olive oil-drizzled toasts.

Fortunately, even though the calendar tells us that Autumn is upon us, beautiful, local eggplant and tomatoes will still be available for a couple of least through the end of September, and if the weather holds, into October.  Furthermore, unlike the fresh and raw of many of the foods of summer, the rich flavor of roasted eggplant really seems appropriate for the early days of fall.  

So, if you are planning a gathering of your friends in the near future (and right now—while the days are still warm and the evenings are pleasantly cool—really is the perfect moment for entertaining out of doors), this little salad/spread would be a great thing to include in your menu.  But you don't have to have a party to enjoy this special little dish.  You can make it for yourself (and your family...should you feel like sharing).  Then, take a moment to enjoy it on the patio—or the deck—briefly stopping to welcome autumn....and watch summer draw to a close.   

Moroccan Mashed Eggplant & Tomato Salad

1 1/2 lb. eggplant (2 medium)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, halved, seeded and diced, juices reserved
1 to 2 t. double concentrated tomato paste, optional
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (about 1 T.)
1 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. sweet paprika
1/4 t. cayenne (or to taste)
1/2 to 1 T. lemon juice—more if tomatoes are very mild
2 T. minced cilantro
2 T. minced flat leaf parsley
salt to taste

Pierce eggplants in several places with the tip of a knife.  Place on a baking pan and roast in a 475° oven until very soft (test with a knife toward the stem end).  The skin will be wrinkled and the eggplant will be beginning to collapse—about 45 to 55 minutes.  When cool enough to handle, peel and transfer the flesh to a colander placed on a plate or in the sink.  Drain until cool.  Transfer the flesh to a cutting board and roughly chop.  Scrape the eggplant back into the colander and sprinkle with a half tablespoon of lemon juice.  Toss to coat and allow the eggplant to continue to drain—stir and smash occasionally, you want the flesh to be very well drained.

While the eggplant drains, warm 3 T. of olive oil in a medium skillet set over moderate heat. Add the tomatoes along with their reserved juices, the tomato paste (if using), 3/4 t. kosher salt, the garlic, and the spices.  

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are reduced to a thick sauce—about 20 minutes.  The sauce should have a glossy sheen and when you draw a path through the pan with the spoon, the path should remain. 

Add the drained eggplant and mash it in.  Taste and correct the seasoning with lemon juice (the amount you will need will depend on the acidity of your tomatoes) and salt.  

Let cool to room temperature.  Stir in the herbs. 

The Zaalouk may be served right away, but it tastes best if made a few hours ahead.  If making more than a few hours ahead (the day before, for example), cover and chill.  Bring to room temperature to serve.  Stir in the remaining 3 to 4 t. of olive oil just before serving. 

Makes about 1 1/2 cup, serving 6 as a side dish...more if being served as part of a Meze platter. 

(Recipe adapted from Arabesque by Claudia Roden and The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert

No comments: