Sour and sharp, intensely sweet, hot and pungent, squishy soft and crunchy … can you believe it? This salad has the lot in every mouthful!
1 large eggplant (aubergine), weighing about 400g (14 ounces)
3 Tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt, or to taste
8 fresh dates, halved, pitted, then thinly sliced
2 Tbsp, or more, fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp thinly sliced or chopped preserved lemon rind
1 small red or white onion, peeled and slivered
1 hot red chilli, finely chopped
½ tsp ground cumin, plus extra for sprinkling
½ cup coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped
1 Cut eggplant into thickish rounds then fat cubes. Lay them on the chopping board and let them dry off for several minutes. Heat oil in a medium-sized frying pan I(skillet) over medium heat, and once it is hot add the eggplant cubes. Stir 2-3 times to coat the eggplant cubes with oil. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for several minutes until the eggplant has started to brown and soften. You’ll need to turn the eggplant cubes with tongs or shake the pan from time to time to encourage even browning. Lower the heat if things get a bit fierce. Once eggplant cubes are tender, remove the lid and continue cooking until nicely browned. Sprinkle generously with ¼ tsp salt. Cool.
2 In a large bowl put the dates, lemon juice, preserved lemon rind, onion, chilli, cumin and coriander and ¼ tsp salt. Mix gently, breaking up any clusters of dates. Add eggplant and mix again until you can see that the dates are no longer in sticky clumps and are evenly distributed. Have a taste. If it doesn’t make you go WHAAAAA! and fist pump, start doctoring (see below). When you’ve got it right, if there’s any left, pile into a dish and serve pronto.
The dates for this recipe need to be soft and squidgy, and the chilli hot. Don’t attempt it with old dry as boot leather jobbies, because it will be a major disappointment. There’s no trick to slicing the dates – they’ll stick to the knife no matter what you do, just persevere, although you can try oiling the knife blade from time to time.
While this is scrumptious enough to serve simply piled on bread, you can accompany it with Middle Eastern dishes, yoghurty type things and olives … Lamb’s obviously a go-er, and chicken also works, or serve it as part of a mezze selection of nibbles or small plates of food.
I love it when freshly tossed, when everything is all perky and standing to attention, the onion crunchy, the lemon and chilli biting fresh, but it’s also good a bit wilted when everything settles down and melds together. A knockout either way.
But (there’s always a but), be prepared to add more salt, more lemon juice or more chilli. Whether you need more salt will depend on how salty the preserved lemon is after rinsing. It needs to have a sharp bite and if the lemon you use is a sweeter type, like a Meyer lemon, you’ll need more juice. And if the chilli turns out to be a dud, without oomph, you might need to resort to a little chilli powder. Everything in this salad needs to be strong and in your face to bring about that explosive mouthful.
In the photo, I gathered the white onion slices together and mounded them on top of the other ingredients. Oh, and if you can’t find a white onion, use a red one, or the white part of spring onions (scallions).
Photography Aaron McLean http://www.aaronmclean.com
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