Friday, August 6, 2010

Mediterranean Salad: Too Hot for Ratatouille

This time of year, the plump and colorful and substantial vegetables start coming in to the good stores, farmers’ markets and CSA boxes, even up here in the great, cold north. There are onions and peppers and summer squash and eggplant. The cherry tomatoes are going crazy next to my back door and the herbs in my containers are beginning to look like weeds. Aahh…good times.

The only problem is that while I still may be in the great north, it’s not so cold. In fact, it’s downright hot, which is not my favorite sensation to say the least. I’d even say it’s too hot for things like warm pasta sauces and the Mediterranean-style stews that use these longer-growing sunny-day vegetables. And eggplant and zucchini are not on my list of vegetables that are ruined by cooking. Really, they’re quite the opposite.

Fortunately, I was guided by the infinite wisdom of the professionals, specifically by Mark Bittman in his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I decided to suck it up for a while, endure the heat while cooking the vegetables, then serve them as a salad rather than a hot dish. The vegetables are sautéed until just tender and then, while they’re still warm, they’re doused with fresh lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. The vegetables soak up this simple dressing and get perked up by its fresh flavor along with that of a good handful of just-picked herbs. I also added white beans to the salad, which makes it heartier and bumps up the protein content. The creaminess of the beans is also a great compliment to the somewhat spongy texture of the sautéed vegetables.

This salad is best served at room temperature, where the mellow flavors of the vegetables can still come through the aromas of the herbs and lemon, but it is also quite good cold. It would probably ride well alongside a more substantial main dish, such as grilled chicken, or pork, but I served it on its own as a light meal. All it needed was a chunk of crusty bread to sop up the drippy lemon-olive oil dressing. Of course, a nicely-chilled glass of wine wouldn’t hurt, either.

Mediterranean Vegetable Salad with White Beans
Adapted from a recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small eggplant (about 8 ounces) cut into about 1-inch chunks
1 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper, divided
1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, cut into about 1-inch chunks
1 hot yellow wax pepper (or other mildly spicy pepper), seeds removed and finely chopped
1 medium zucchini (about 8 ounces) cut into about 1-inch chunks
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup cherry tomatoes (or chopped tomato)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Good Parmesan cheese (such as Parmigiano Reggiano) shaved for garnish

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant, ¼ teaspoon salt and a small pinch of the black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally about 8 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft but still holding its shape. Transfer the eggplant from the pan to a large bowl and set aside.

2. Return the pan to medium heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onion, bell pepper, hot wax pepper and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the zucchini, garlic, remaining ½ teaspoon salt and remaining black pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

4. Stir in the tomatoes, thyme, oregano and basil. Cook 2-3 minutes more, or until the tomatoes begin to shrivel and slump. Transfer the cooked vegetable mixture to the large bowl with the eggplant. Cool at least 10 minutes.

5. While the vegetables are still warm, add the lemon juice and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir to combine. Cool to room temperature or chill.

Makes 4-6 main-dish salad servings, more servings as a side salad. This salad tastes best at room temperature, but is also good chilled.

Other recipes like this one: Lemon Herb Potato Salad

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