Tuesday, July 4, 2006

My assistant was smitten from the moment she tasted the roasted eggplant and tomato salad I had prepared for a cooking class.

She loved the combination of colors — the dark purple-hued eggplant paired with the bright-red plum tomatoes. She liked the contrast of textures — the softness of the roasted eggplant combined with the firmer plum tomatoes and the crunchy onions.

She was especially surprised by the unexpected spicy taste of the dressing, a mixture of lemon juice and robust seasonings of cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper. The clincher was learning that it could all be made in advance.

I, too, am crazy about this summer dish. Its origin is Moroccan, and the recipe is inspired by one in Joyce Goldstein’s “The Mediterranean Kitchen” (Morrow Cookbooks).

Moroccan food is vibrant, and this salad, with its bold flavors and colors, is definitely representative. For summer entertaining, the dish makes a fine side to grilled entrees.

I like to partner it with lamb, either chops or a butterflied leg, and it’s ideal as an accompaniment to grilled chicken (which I like to marinate in lemon juice, olive oil and a hefty amount of coarse black pepper).

Unexpectedly, I discovered another use when I spread a little of the leftover eggplant and tomato melange on some pita chips, and found that this salad would also make a tempting dip. Add versatility to its list of credits.

My assistant made sure she left with a copy of the recipe, declaring that she couldn’t wait to try it at home. It turns out that her husband’s birthday is coming up soon, and his favorite summer vegetables are eggplant and tomatoes. This salad is definitely going to be part of the celebration.

Roasted eggplant and tomato salad

This salad actually tastes better when prepared 3 to 4 hours ahead so that the flavors can meld. It can also be prepared a day in advance. Refrigerate and bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving when making ahead.

When made a day or even several hours ahead, the parsley will lose some of its bright green color. If you prefer, you can gently stir in the parsley at serving time.

cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for the baking sheet

2 eggplants (about 2 pounds total), stemmed but unpeeled

Kosher salt

1 to 11/4 pounds plum tomatoes, halved, seeded and cut into -inch dices

1/4 cup chopped onion

4 teaspoons minced garlic

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice plus more, if needed

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 450 degrees. Oil a large, heavy baking sheet generously with olive oil.

Cut each eggplant into 1-inch cubes and place them on baking sheet. Drizzle with cup olive oil, then toss to coat all the eggplant well.

Spread the diced eggplant in a single layer in the pan and season with 1 teaspoon salt.

Roast, stirring every 5 minutes, until golden and tender, about 15 minutes.

Watch carefully so that eggplant does not overcook. Remove and cool 10 minutes. Transfer to a large nonreactive mixing bowl and add tomatoes, onion, and garlic.

Whisk lemon juice with cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper in a small bowl. Pour the mixture over the eggplant and tomatoes, and toss very gently, taking care to keep the eggplant intact.

Add parsley to the bowl with the eggplant. Mix gently. Taste and season with more salt and a squeeze or two more of lemon juice, if desired.

Spoon salad into a serving bowl or onto a platter. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


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