Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Marinated Turkish Eggplant with Feta, Chili, and Mint
The eggplant wasn’t well known in Europe until the mid 1500s. Surprising, isn’t it? The Moors carried the fruit back from Persia in the 12th Century, but Europeans - initially suspicious that eating eggplant (a member of the Nightshade family) could cause madness or death – weren’t interested.
And frankly, I’ve spent much of my life in agreement. For someone who enjoys produce as ardently as I, I’ve been oddly reticent about the whole thing. Is it that little tinge of bitterness that can remain even after a proper degorging? Could it be the alarming speed with which the fruits oxidize as soon as they’re cut? Or is it the knowledge that Nightshades can cause that lovely little dab of foot arthritis my dance career left behind to sit up and sing: "Get ready for old age, honey. I'm comin' for ya." That's how foot arthritis talks, by the by.
My eggplant prejudice was probably just something I decided on while I was too young to know any better, and in the past few years, I’ve really done a 180. Clearly the eggplant – so called because some of the first varieties to arrive on the continent were shaped and sized like hen eggs – caught on in the Mediterranean eventually. And there’s been something of an eggplant renaissance (or is it naissance?) in our house too. I think it’s the stunning saturation of color paired with the fruit’s subtle smokiness that got me over the hump and helped me to finally, belatedly fall in love.
This salad is a great way of making up for lost time. Kind Nevia at Yuno’s Farm had a little heap of Turkish eggplants (gently flavored, narrow, no more than 2 oz a piece) at the market on Monday, and she always displays her produce on white linen tablecloths, which made the miniature wine-dark fruits glisten like gems. I snapped them up with this dish in mind. Mint offers up an eggplant’s smokiness better than anything I know, and the lemon vinaigrette that the grilled fruits steep in keeps the flavors light and refreshing.
There is no need to degorge (salt and rinse to remove bitterness) Turkish eggplant, or most of the smaller varieties for that matter. If you can only find the big eggplants near you, you might want to consider it, and I’ve included instructions below. In a month or so, I’ll add fresh fig halves to the mix. In the meantime I just count on the honey in the dressing for a lightly sweet contrast to the twang of the lemon and the heat of the chili.
Serves 4 – 6
1 ½ lbs eggplant, small/ Turkish if possible
juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp honey
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 large or 2 small red chilis, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 – 2 oz feta cheese
1 handful fresh mint leaves
If using large eggplant, you may degorge it to remove some of the bitterness: Remove the stems and slice the fruit lengthwise into ½ inch thick slices. Arrange them on a tray in a single layer and sprinkle with kosher salt. Let sit for 30 minutes and then rinse well under running water. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
Preheat the grill on high heat.
In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly drizzle in as much extra virgin olive oil as there is lemon juice, whisking as you go. Toss in the chili.
If using small eggplants, remove their stems and slice them in half lengthwise. Working quickly to avoid too much oxidization, lay the eggplant pieces cut side down on the grill. Once the grill has seared the flesh (about 2 – 3 minutes), turn the pieces and grill about 5 minutes more. Remove the eggplant from the grill and toss straight into the lemon vinaigrette. Continue working in batches if necessary until all the grilled fruit is marinating in the bowl. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Before serving, crumble in the feta cheese and toss well to combine. Taste to see if your salad need more salt or lemon – you may be surprised by how much seasoning it needs if your feta isn’t very salty. Finally, scatter in the fresh mint leaves, toss once more, and serve at room temperature.