I love cooking. Whether it’s a work night, a special dinner, for just me, or for a big party, I love it all. For me, cooking is relaxing and meditative. So even after a long day’s work, I still look forward to coming home and crafting a nourishing meal. Even if it’s just scrambled eggs on toast. I love the whole meal process from the planning to the onions. Yes, the onions. There’s something very Zen about dicing onions. Yes, I love it all. It is grounding. That is, except for one situation…
I’m plagued with paralyzing anxiety when my vegetarian friends come for dinner. So much so that I don’t believe I’ve ever cooked for them. Not once. What if it’s not tasty enough, what if it’s not vegetarian enough (I don’t even know what that means!), what if it’s….boring? (God forbid).
I have good intentions. I even enjoy the planning, but when it comes down to execution, without fail, hours before dinner I get cold feet and we end up at the neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant. Not that that’s a bad thing. I do love Ethiopian. It’s just not as personal, not as intimate. In my mind, I have to change my entire way of thinking and cooking. I feel constricted. I feel paralyzed cooking for vegetarians.
I know that’s crazy. Saying it aloud, it sounds crazy. But thanks to writing this blog, I now know it’s crazy. Rifling back through just the few months I’ve been writing, I never realized how many of my meals are actually vegetarian! I mean, it’s kind of a mind-blowing revelation, that all this anxiety has all just been a mental mind trip. So bring it on, vegetarians! I’m ready for you!
In celebration of this revelation of mine, I dedicate to you, my vegetarian friends, this amazing warm salad of roasted eggplant and lentils. Much like my epiphany that I can, in fact, cook an enjoyable and delicious meal for vegetarians, this recipe is also a revelation of flavors — salty, sweet, spicy, tangy, bitter (bitter in a good way). It pops with so much flavor and texture that everyone, veg and non-veg alike, will fall in love!
There’s a lot of yin and yang going on in this little salad. The roasted eggplant is silky and caramelized with a great smokey, spicy, tangy punch. It’s offset by the crunch of the smoked almonds and the starchy pop of the lentils. The flavors are just out of this world! You get smokiness from the paprika and then a totally different kind of smokiness from the almonds. I love that there’s this great, deep acidity from apple cider vinegar playing against the bright acid punch from the lemon. All this together gives this dish a lot of dimension and character. I was literally scraping eggplant bits off the bottom of the pan to snack on.
It’s a texture and flavor explosion and, easily, my favorite dish of 2013 so far. I know, I know. It’s only March. But it’s seriously that good, folks!
Roasted Eggplant and Lentil Salad with Smoked Almonds & Feta
(adapted from TheKitchn)
3/4 cup dried beluga lentils, rinsed and drained
~7 slender Japanese eggplants, about 2 pounds
scant 1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4 garlic cloves, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon, [start with 1/2 a lemon and add more as needed]
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup flat parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup smoked almonds, roughly chopped
2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled and divided [the original recipe called for crumbled goat cheese, which would also be delicious!]
1/4 cup chopped chives, divided
Heat the oven to 400°F. Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes and put in a large bowl.
Whisk together the olive oil, apple cider vinegar, honey, smoked paprika, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cumin. Stir in the garlic. Add vinaigrette to the eggplant and toss to coat well.
Spread the eggplant on a large baking sheet lined with parchment or foil. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and slide onto a rack placed in the center of the oven. Roast at 400°F for 40 minutes, or until very tender and caramelized on a few sides. (Stir every 15 minutes and check after 30 minutes to make sure it isn’t burning.) Remove from the oven and cool slightly.
While the eggplant is baking, make the lentils. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add beluga lentils and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the lentils are al dente; they should not be mushy. Drain well and add lentils to the same bowl in which the eggplant had been tossed with the vinaigrette. Swish it around a bit to pick up remnants of the vinaigrette and garlic left behind.
Add the slightly cooled eggplant back to the same bowl with the lentils. Toss with soy sauce and lemon juice. Stir in the parsley leaves, smoked almonds, most of the feta cheese, and most of the chives, reserving a little of the feta and chives. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Spread the finished salad in a serving bowl and sprinkle the reserved feta crumbles and chives on top. Serve warm.