Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Summer Eggplant Salad

This is a perfect starter or side dish for a hot summer day.

The eggplant is native to the Indian subcontinent and was brought to Europe by Arabs in the Middle Ages.  The first known written documentation comes from a Chinese agricultural text dating from 544; the first European reference is in an English botany text from 1597.

The eggplant is a member of the nightshade family and was domesticated from the wild nightshade, also known as the thorn apple or bitter apple.  It is closely related to the tomato and potato.  In most languages, the fruit is known by some variation of the words aubergine, brinjal, or melongene, all of which derive from a Dravidian word that was borrowed into Sanskrit and Pali, then into Persian, then into Arabic, and finally into European languages.

The 18th century cultivars popular in Europe were spherical and light in color, hence the name ‘eggplant’ which is still used in American English.  Although most North Americans are now familiar with the dark purple cultivar, eggplants come in shades of white, yellow, green, and reddish-purple.  There is also great variation in size—ranging from that of a grape to a watermelon.

Eggplant has a firm skin and smooth, spongy flesh.  It can be stewed (as in French ratatouille), fried (as in Italian eggplant parmensan), stuffed (as in Turkish Imam bayildi), curried (as in Indian curries), mashed (as in Middle Eastern baba ghanoush or on pizza), pickled (as in Syrian makdous), and braised or steamed in various Chinese dishes.  Eggplant has become popular as a meat-substitute in vegetarian cuisine.

Five nations account for 90% of international eggplant production; China leads the way followed by India, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey.

Serves 4-6

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers, chopped
2 green bell peppers, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Whisk together the oil, lemon, salt, and pepper to create the dressing.
3. Toss eggplant with 1/3 cup dressing, and spread onto a baking sheet.  Bake for 30 minutes, tossing occasionally until tender and golden around edges.  Remove from the oven and let the eggplant cool so that it is warm (but not hot enough to melt the feta).
4. Mix feta, garlic, and capers into reserved dressing.
5. In a large bowl, combine baked eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and mint leaves. Toss with reserved dressing and serve within 2 hours.