This salad looks a bit demure. It can be given a makeover with a nice presentation, on special occasions, but some people will keep thinking it is just another boring vegan blob. As if someone had invited also the ugly sister to a dinner party just to please the beautiful one.
It does not smell particularly strong – maybe a whiff of sour and mint if you go really close, but when it is at room temperature, it does not really hit.
And then you taste it, and it explodes. It smacks you in the face with smokiness, then unfolds its complexity as you chew through it. Fresh and sour notes come in, then meatiness and a hint of sweetness as you tackle the lentils, while the slightly bitter, crunchy, nutty walnuts predominate as you chew them last.
The heart of this salad is smoked aubergine, the one used for baba ghanoush dip. I had never smoked an aubergine before starting to learn about Middle East food. I always thought the natural destiny for an aubergine, the right, glorious end for its charming black beauty, is to be deep-fried in olive oil. More often than not I ended up playing it down, pan roasting it in cubes with just a bit of oil, roasting it in the oven, cut into wedges, or even grilling it, sliced. A defeat for taste.
I was keen to try yet another method for cooking aubergines, and I have always roasted bell peppers on fire, so I gave it a try. The first time I roasted one on the flame it tasted like petrol, it made the house smell like someone had burned plastic and it left me with a mess that took days to clean. But I don’t give up that easily when there are aubergines involved. I finally am quite happy with my technique, but I suspect that really liking a smoked aubergine is a bit of an acquired taste. When I did acquire it, though, I had at my hands a way to unleash the aubergine in its full might.
In Italy most kitchens have gas stoves, and roasting aubergines on them is a bloody mess if you are not careful. The aubergine leaks water as it roasts, lots of it, sometimes, and little pieces of totally burned skin may melt into your stove top. The best option if you are not familiar with roasting aubergines is to go for an outdoor barbecue, where the mess is less of an issue. Some recipes call to use the oven, placing them under a hot grill, but I never had one so I never tried. On the other hand I adapted quite successfully my method for stove top, direct flame to the electic plates .
Smoked aubergine has quite a character indeed. But it is not alone here. Lentils are easily overlooked in favour of other legumes, looking plumper and meatier and bigger. Here they prove all their personality. And to bring flavours together, besides the sour and sweet notes of pomegranate molasses, there is one of my favourite herbs: mint. There are as many varieties of mint as there are bushes, it seems. It is a robust, aggressive herb with a tendency to conquer as much space as it can. It is always rewarding when I find it growing wild: every time I taste it, it is a discovery. At my grandparent’s garden a big bunch of mint grew creeping all over, menacing the neighbouring roses every year. My mother does not like mint, so I grew up thinking the poor herb was repulsive; however there were some things with mint I just loved. Mint tea with a lot of sugar. Frittata with mint leaves in it. Mohito, later. I started from there and used it more and more, and now I cannot think of cooking without it. I like it dried, as it lightens things up in a gentle manner, and it is maybe the only soft herb that is as good dried as it is fresh. But I also use it fresh when I find it, with spinach, with zucchini, adding leaves in a salad.
In Asian shops I find big bunches of peppermint, green and mild. It can be added in large quantities without taking risks. At the market on the other hand they have some very pungent, slightly furry spearmint. It is tasty and fresh, but it tends to win over everything else. I use it sparingly.
I’m sharing this salad with Weekend Herb Blogging #283: I’m on a mission to convert mint haters to the love of this wonderful herb, and I think this salad has good chances (I’ll prepare it for my mum next time she visits me!). The event was started by Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen, and is now organized by Haalo of Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once. This week the host is Simona at Briciole. It is also Briciole’s fourth blog anniversary and to celebrate Simona is offering a travel journal hand bound by her as a prize to one lucky contributor.
How to prepare a smoked aubergine
- If you have a barbecue: This must be roasted on flames to get the maximum smoky effect. Place the washed aubergines close enough for the flames to touch it but not burn it completely. Turn it often until the skin is almost all browned and the pulp has collapsed into a soft melt. If there are any hard bits, keep on cooking it.
- If you have a gas stove: Protect your stove by lining everything with sturdy aluminium foil: wrap it all apart from where the flame comes out. Make sure you also place some foil on a 20 cm radius around the place where the flame comes from. It takes a while but it will save you hours of cleaning. Place the aubergine on the direct flame turning it now and again until the skin is charred and the pulp is completely soft.
- If you have an electric stove: simply cover your plate with a sheet of aluminium foil. Put the aubergine directly there and turn it regularly. It helps to press down the aubergine a bit in the final stages of cooking. Again the skin needs to be charred but above all there must be no hard spots.
Then: Take the aubergine off the flame and let it cool slightly. Slice it open in twice lengthwise. Scoop out the pulp with a spoon, making sure you take up no charred skin and leave behind most of the slighty browned pulp right under the skin. Roughly chop the pulp (you may want to get rid of some seeds if there are too many, but I find this step non necessary) then sprinkle with salt and drain it in a colander for half an hour. Squeeze it lightly before using. It keeps for about a day.
Lentil and aubergine salad
200 gr brown, small lentils (Puy, Castelluccio or caviar have a great flavour and a good bite)
1 medium aubergine, prepared as above
2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (adjust to the intensity of your mint)
2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
a handful of walnuts, shelled
Method: cook the lentils in boiling water until they are soft, but still retain their shape well. It will take around 30 minutes. when they are cooked, drain them well (can be made 2-3 days ahead). Mix with all the other ingredients but the walnuts, and plenty of salt and black pepper. Taste and adjust – you want the sourness and the mint to be clearly there. Serve warm or keep in the fridge and serve cold. Garnish with roughly chopped walnuts right before serving so they stay crunchy. Serve with pita wedges or lattuce leaves to use as scoops.