This dish may be a salad. It does contain quinoa. But please don’t think that means that it is virtuous, or sparse, or diet food. Because this salad is washed in olive oil and kissed with herbs and tastes like those glorious vegetables you get on the antipasta platter at good Italian restaurants. It’s the kind you eat with crusty bread and creamy cheese and drink with bubbly because the vegetables taste like a celebration of their own existence.
We ate it in celebration with our old friend Hannah, who is moving to China this week. We brought it for a potluck picnic, and ate the eggplant with shredded chicken and brie and bubbly and cornbread. It was cold enough that I kicked myself for not wearing a sweater, and we definitely could have smuggled in the bottle of wine Aaron talked me out of packing. We ate with mismatched forks and paper plates and drank out of red solo cups, with a band played not far from our perch. After the music was over a cheesy car chase movie played in the park, and we all huddled together wrapped in our picnic blankets while Burt Reynolds drove a Trans Am at 110 mph. Afterwards we had drinks at one of my favorite restaurants and stayed up way too late, laughing and talking and reminiscing. There’s a reason, I think, that some of our best gatherings revolve around food- by sharing our sustenance, we’re sharing ourselves.
Eggplant and Quinoa Salad
The eggplants here are shriveled, dark, and concentrated, and have the same earthy richness as mushrooms. The tomatoes (in 2 forms) bring the sweet and savory aspect, and the quinoa provides pleasurable little pops as you take each bite.
Japanese eggplants are the long and thin ones that are a beautiful shade of lilac. If you can only find standard eggplants, I would use only one, cut it into cubes, and salt it ten minutes before frying. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that I’m infatuated with. I’ve found it at some Whole Foods, spice shops, and our local coop. It usually contains herbs, sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. If you can’t find it, you could substitute thyme or oregano.
Serves 2 for a meal, or several for a side
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
2 Japanese eggplants, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
1/2 teaspoon of za’atar, or to taste
1 cup cooked and cooled quinoa
2 tomatoes, sliced into half moons
2 sun-dried tomatoes, minced
small bunch of chives, chopped
handful of parsley leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon stone ground mustard
half a shallot, finely diced
1 tablespoon parsley, diced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat and add the olive oil. Add the eggplant to the skillet, making sure it can fit in a single layer. If your skillet isn’t large enough, then fry the eggplant in two patches. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and za’atar. Fry the eggplant until golden on one side, about 3 minutes, then rotate the eggplant. If the pan is too dry add more oil (eggplant loves oil). It might get quite dark and that’s okay. The darkness is where the flavor comes in. When the eggplant is fried on both sides remove and place in a large bowl.
To make dressing, add all the ingredients and shake well. The dressing should be oily in texture. Taste the dressing, and add salt and pepper to season as needed.
Combine the eggplant with the quinoa, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs, and dressing and toss well. Taste for seasonings. The salad should have more dressing than an ordinary salad, and should taste as if it’s being embraced by the oil.
Serve at room temperature, preferably outdoors in the company of good friends.