Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mediterranean Salad with Balsamic Roasted Eggplant, Couscous, & Sardines

After a three-week trip to the USA for work, I've returned to Sydney craving the abundant, fresh produce and seafood that is featured so well in this city's grocers, cafés, and restaurants. It was strange going back for the first time in my 8-year ex-pat furlough and not craving tasty food. I enjoyed our time in the UK, and certainly developed a taste for some English specialties (marmite on toast, a good curry, tea with milk but no sugar, those huge scones at The Orchard in Grantchester with clotted cream and strawberry jam). But every time I was back in the States during those years I crammed in as many American, southern, dishes as I could, from Tex-Mex and mom's homemade recipes to salads big enough to feed a small army.

Here in Sydney, however, my palate is sated. There is such an accessible and never-ending range of ethnic food eateries (from food trucks and holes-in-the-wall to expansive sit-down restaurants crammed with diners) that I hardly notice my underlying constant desire for Tex-Mex.  If I do, there are quite a few places in town that make a mean carnita taco and margarita (and stock those Mexican beers, served ice-cold), but I might just choose Argentinian instead because it's so damn good. The salads here are creative and satisfying, they showcase the best of seasonal produce. Brunch in Australia is an unparalleled experience. The Italian-influenced café culture has perfected the panini (not to mention the coffee), and there seems to be a gelato shop within a few blocks of wherever you're standing. And the seafood. Oysters of all description, mussels, salt and pepper squid, whole fish fresh off the boats at the fishing docks, prawns as big as your hand. And the wine is a treat.  
Southernspoon blog: heirloom tomato salad @ Sydney Theatre Co's The Bar at the End of the Wharf
gorgeous heirloom tomato salad at the Sydney Theatre Company's Bar at the End of the Wharf,
a favorite locale for the seasonal food, live music, great vibe
So while I enjoyed a late night taco run with my siblings, mom's home cooking, fried chicken tenders, kolaches from the incredible Czech Stop Bakery in West (thinking of that sweet community now as they start a long recovery from the fertilizer plant explosion), beef BBQ in Texas and pork BBQ in Tennessee, and drank my fill of southern brews, I didn't feel like I was topping up on something I'd been missing out on for the last 23 months. 
Southernspoon blog: Shiner Bock beer and Czech Stop kolaches
Shiner Bock beer at the Monument Cafe, Georgetown, TX
and delicious kolaches at Czech Stop Bakery, West, TX.  Bless the people of West.
And when I got back home here by the ocean and that beautiful harbour bridge and opera house, walked into the door and saw that the hubs had filled the fruit bowl to capacity with beautiful, seasonal produce, I felt very blessed to live in a country of such abundance. 

I've been making lots of salads recently, even though the days are shorter and the evenings are getting cooler as we move into fall. This recipe is a keeper: very filling with couscous and sardines (they're fantastic-- don't question it, just try it). And full of flavor with the marinated, roasted red peppers, artichokes, kalamata olives, and homemade balsamic roasted eggplant. Plus lots of heart-healthy good fats and omega-3s from the olive oil and sardines.
mediterranean salad with couscous, marinated vegetables,
homemade balsamic roasted eggplant,  and sardines
To make it meatless, you could substitute a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas for the sardines. I used sardines in spring water without added salt, and they were a perfect, mild accompaniment to the other salad components. Chopped feta or haloumi would be good, though the salad is salty enough already with the various marinated vegetables. And the roasted eggplant slices are great, I've also made them for pita wraps and sandwiches.

As you move into spring in the northern hemisphere, enjoy the blooming flora (I relished the opportunity to see bluebonnets on the Texas country roads for the first time in eight years!), and try out this salad as a quick and delicious dinner or weekend lunch.
bluebonnets in bloom near Brenham, TX
Mediterranean Salad with Balsamic Roasted Eggplant, Couscous, & Sardines
Serves 3 or 4 as a main dish

for the roasted eggplant:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 medium-sized eggplant 
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled

for the salad:
1/2 cup dried couscous
1/2 cup boiling water
3 cups salad greens sliced into thin strips (I used romaine lettuce and spinach)
1/2 cup coursely chopped roasted, marinated red peppers (I used store-bought for this recipe, or you can just roast your own bell peppers as described in this post)
1/2 cup coursely chopped marinated artichoke hearts
1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, sliced
3 or 4 sardines, drained and sliced in half lengthwise (try to find sardines without salt added)

for the dressing:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
pinch of freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 205C / 400 F. 

First prepare the roasted eggplant. Discard the top stem of the eggplant. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise, then cut each of those halves lengthwise again. Holding two long halves together at a time, slice cross-ways down the eggplant to make 1-cm wide slices. Repeat with the other two long halves of eggplant. 

In a large glass bowl, whisk together the extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, parsley, and ground pepper. Toss the eggplant slices into the bowl and stir to coat evenly with the olive oil and vinegar mixture. Spread the coated slices out in a single layer on a baking pan. (Save the bowl to make the couscous!). Place the two whole, unpeeled garlic gloves on the pan with the eggplant slices. Bake at 205C / 400F for 15 minutes, then remove from oven to cool.

While the eggplant is roasting, prepare the salad. In the same bowl in which you tossed the eggplant slices (so it should still have a nice residue of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and dried herbs), place the dried couscous. Pour the 1/2 cup of boiling water over the dried couscous, and cover. Let sit for 5 minutes.

To prepare the dressing, whisk together in a small bowl the extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, parsley, and pepper. Set aside.

When the couscous has soaked up all the water (about 5 minutes), remove cover and separate grains with a fork. At this point the eggplant should be finished roasting. Remove the two roasted garlic cloves from the eggplant pan, squeeze the garlic out of the papery skin, and chop the garlic finely. Stir the roasted, chopped garlic into the couscous. Add the thinly sliced salad greens to the couscous in the glass bowl, and toss carefully so that the couscous is evenly distributed throughout.  

On a large serving platter, arrange the couscous-salad greens mixture. Over the couscous-salad greens sprinkle the chopped roasted peppers, artichokes, roasted eggplant, and olives, and top with the sardine halves. Drizzle the dressing evenly over the salad. 

Serve immediately, or refrigerate and serve within 12 hours.

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