Solanum. Have you heard of it? No, it’s not a little-known X-Men villain nor a roller coaster at Cedar Point nor the title of the next James Bond movie. It’s actually something much more thrilling: a far-reaching and incredibly important genus of flowering plants, as well as the undisputed queen of late summer produce.
Three titans of the produce world belong to Solanum — the potato, the tomato, and the eggplant — plus it shares a family (Solanaceae) with yet another summer darling, the bell pepper (the deadly poisonous nightshade plant also belongs to Solanaceae, so you can imagine who causes the most ruckus at family reunions). The name of this genus still stumps etymologists, but when Pliny the Elder first used it a couple millennia ago, he was probably drawing on either the Latin word for “sun” (sol) or “a comfort” (solamen). Because I find the veggies in this genus both sunny and comforting, I’ll take either explanation.
This recipe, which is an only slightly adapted version of one found in my newly-acquired and most excellent Moosewood Restaurant Favorites cookbook (thank you, Sister!), focuses on one member of Solanum in particular: the eggplant. Dark and mysterious, eggplant has never been a regular on my shopping list, other than when ratatouille is on the menu. But this recipe is good enough to change that.
So read on! And get some eggplant in your life ASAP.
roasted eggplant salad
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Favorites
1 medium eggplant
1 fennel bulb
2 cups red or yellow bell peppers (I used mini ones, but regular would do), diced
1 white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
salt & pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt & pepper
1 cucumber, diced
2 cups diced celery
Serves 4 as a main
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
First off, peel your eggplant and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. And now the fennel bulb: these guys are fussy to chop, but so worth the trouble for that subtle anise flavor they add. Chop off the stalk and base of the fennel bulb and remove any discolored outer layers. Next, slice the bulb in half and cut away the tough core. Finally, chop into 1/2-inch pieces.
In a (very) large mixing bowl, combine the eggplant, fennel, diced onion and pepper, garlic, rosemary, and oil, and season with salt and pepper. Toss until everything is well-coated. Spread the veggies on two rimmed baking sheets in an even layer. Bake for 25 or so minutes, making sure to turn things over with a spatula once or twice to ensure even roasting.
While the veggies are roasting, chop up the cucumber and celery. In another (very) large mixing bowl, combine the dressing ingredients, then toss in the cuc and celery.
Once the veggies have roasted up tender and lightly browned, throw them in with the dressing and crunchy vegetables and toss. I like this salad best slightly chilled, so pop the whole thing in the fridge for an hour or so, or until ready to eat.
This salad was divine when served on a bed of greens and topped with fresh parsley, feta and olives. One night I even added a handful of chickpeas for extra protein. And of course, a side of warm toasted pita wedges never hurt anyone.
There’s a lot to love about this bowl. The slimy (in a good way!) eggplant mixed up with the crunch of celery. That happy trio of oil, vinegar and parsley that can brighten any dish. The surprising hint of licorice in the roasted fennel. And of course, that tang of olives and feta that I clearly never tire of. This bowl is probably best eaten on a warm summer night on a Grecian isle or perhaps at an outdoor cafe along the Bosphorus, but hey — I bet it’d taste pretty darn good in your kitchen, too.