A New Direction for an Old Favorite: Middle Eastern Eggplant Salad
September 28, 2018
As a chef and cooking teacher, I am always looking for new, healthy and exotic spins on simple dishes. This is the way that I like to cook and eat, and a style very compatible with today’s lifestyle. Of late, I have been experimenting with Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients. The cuisine of this area is both tasty and beautiful. Here I find the vibrant flavors just the thing to highlight end of summer eggplant. Simply roasted and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette fragrant with the spices of Morocco to create a simple salad, the purple of the eggplant perfectly set-off by the green of the mint and the jewel-toned pomegranate seeds. Eat it alone as a light meal or snack; serve it along side a green salad accompanied with feta and grilled pita as part of a meatless meal; or of course, add grilled lamb, chicken or fish as the main event for a more substantial menu.
I always prefer Asian eggplant as the shape and lack of bitter seeds, make for easy slicing, a sweeter flavor, and a beautiful presentation. Should these long, skinny varieties not be available, feel free to use Italian or globe eggplant, but cut it to discard the very center section with no purple skin. This part of the fruit contains a heavy dose of seeds which will effect the flavor of your final dish if included. Whatever you do, please do not skip the honey or pomegranate molasses as it is this small dose of sweetness that balances the acidity of lemon juice and earthiness of the spices and makes the dish unusual and special. Finally, the mint is a must.
Secrets to Success:
Soaking the onion in cold water mellows the flavor and prevents the taste from repeating on you all day.
Toasting the pine nuts brings out their flavor and allows you to use less in the recipe.
You can toast nuts in a dry skillet set over low heat, but I prefer to use a preheated 325^F toaster oven. Just watch carefully as the nuts go quickly from being undercooked to burnt.
Remove the nuts from the sheet tray and cool in a bowl or on a plate as they will continue to cook if left on the tray.
Carefully wash and dry the mint leaves before tearing.
Finally, do not skip the honey or pomegranate molasses!
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus 3 additional tablespoons for the vinaigrette
4 medium Asian eggplants (about 1½ lb. total), halved lengthwise, cut crosswise into 1" sections
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from about 1 large lemon)
1/2 teaspoon each ground cumin, coriander, and cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced, soaked in cold water for 15 minutes, drained well
1 cups mint leaves, torn if large
2 tablespoons honey or pomegranate molasses for drizzling
2-3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 to 3 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
Preheat the oven to 450°F. In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with 2 tablespoons of the oil and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the eggplant slices to a baking sheet, arranging in a single layer and roast for 20 to 30 minutes, turning once or twice during cooking, until the slices take on a beautiful light brown color. Set aside to cool, and transfer to a serving bowl.The eggplants will keep in the fridge for 3 days; bring them back to room temperature before serving.
Meanwhile, in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, shake together the lemon juice, spices, and the red pepper, if using, until combined. Gradually add the oil, shaking well between each addition, until well-mixed. Alternately, use a bowl and whisk.
Add the onion to the eggplant, and toss to combine. Stir in the dressing, salt and pepper to taste, and the mint: mix well.
Drizzle the eggplant salad with the honey or molasses, then top with the pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.