Bulgur Salad with Eggplant, Feta & Mint Dressing
In recent weeks, I’ve come to love bulk bins. A great new grocery co-op just opened around the corner and with their tempting array of bulk dry goods and spices, I’ve been pretty into scooping custom blends of nuts and seeds for granola bars and taking some new-to-me grains for a test drive. I can’t help but notice how closely this new-found love of the bulk section relates to my childhood adoration of the good ol’ penny candy concept – that Willy Wonka sense of abundance I’d experience once or twice a summer when my brother and I’d be gifted a couple of bucks and let loose on our favorite candy shoppe. Using the big metal scoops, we’d pick one gummy worm here, two non-pareils there, a few Runts, a Mary Jane or two, periodically bringing our paper sacks up to the old fashioned scale to make sure we weren’t going to break the bank. The fun of the experience wasn’t the impending sugar rush or prospect of sampling that strange mishmash of sweets, but the novelty of the selection process – the technicolor fantasy of those sugar-filled apothecary jars.
I digress (there’s a recipe coming, I promise!), but would argue that these days, the bulk department of my local grocery store is as close as I get to penny candy. Although not a fair replacement (Bit-O-Honey and rock candy ≠ steel cut oats and whole wheat pastry flour), bulk bins call to mind the same sense of plenty I feel at the neighborhood co-op. The huge bins of french lentils, unsalted cashews and pistachios, and whole wheat pastry flour are the raw ingredients for all sorts of kitchen experiments. Although my excitement over dry goods might not exactly match those early penny candy store experiences, I’ll take it. We could all use a little more thrill in our weekly grocery shopping routine.
And here’s the real, practical gnitty-gritty: for those on a budget and/or those looking to give a new recipe a try, bulk bins afford you the flexibility to get exactly the amount you need, and to save money on significantly cheaper prices-per-pound. This week I decided to fool around with bulgur, a tasty, whole grain popular in Middle Eastern and Greek Cuisine. It has a deliciously nutty flavor, especially when toasted, and its more distinctive texture and sturdiness make it a great candidate for cold summer salads. Paired with the rich, almost meaty flavor of the eggplant and plenty of feta cheese, this makes a surprisingly substantial vegetarian entrée.
This recipe is effectively, a combination of three smaller ones. Although the components taste tremendous when combined, they’re delicious on their own—the (I) bulgar pilaf makes a tasty side, the (II) eggplant is a great standby to be tossed with pasta or eaten cold along with hummus and pita, and the (III) dressing has pretty great applications as a sauce for meat, rice or vegetables.
Don’t fret if the following instructions feel a bit lengthy – all of the components are pretty simple to prepare and can be made in advance, then combined before serving. The finished product is great served cold or at room temperature. Plus, if you plan on firing up the grill this weekend, consider roasting some extra eggplant (or other veggies of your choice). The leftovers would be just great in lieu of the roasted eggplant below.
(I) For the bulgar (adapted from Mark Bittman’s ‘Bulgar with Spinach’ recipe in How to Cook Everything):
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 small-medium onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup bulgar wheat
1 ¾ hot water or stock
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid (a dutch oven worked well) heat 2 tbsp. olive oil. Add chopped onion, and sauté over medium heat for about five minutes, stirring often until it softens. Reduce the heat slightly. Add the garlic to pot and cook very briefly, stirring constantly so that the garlic doesn’t burn. Next, add the dry bulgar to the onion/garlic mixture, stirring until the grains are coated with olive oil. Continue cooking for about a minute, stirring often—you are effectively toasting the grains to develop a nuttier, more complex flavor, but be careful to avoid burning. Next add the hot water or stock, adjust the heat as low as possible, then cover and cook for ten minutes. After ten minutes, turn off the heat and allow the bulgar to stand, covered for 15 minutes. Pour into a large bowl and set aside.
(II) For the eggplant:
1 red onion, roughly chopped
1 large eggplant, cut into 1/2-3/4 inch dice
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly grease a large rimmed baking sheet with a non-stick spray or olive oil. In a large bowl, toss the onion and eggplant together and coat liberally with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Pour vegetable mixture onto prepared sheet, spread into a even layer (sheet should be large enough so that each cube is making contact with the sheet), and bake, stirring once halfway through cooking for 15-20 minutes or until eggplant is tender and beginning to color. Set aside.
(III) For the dressing (adapted from the the New York Times Mint Dressing recipe):
1/2 cup packed fresh mint
3 to 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
Salt and pepper
Combine all ingredients (except salt and pepper) in a food processor and pulse until well-incorporated by not completely liquefied. Season to taste.
Toss the cooked bulgar, roasted eggplant and finished dressing together in a large bowl. If you can let the mixture sit for a few hours before serving to let the flavors mix and mingle, all the better. Just before serving, add ¼ to ½ pound of crumbled feta cheese, plus of roughly chopped fresh mint and parsley. Feel free to tweak the amount of fresh herbs depend on how much you have on hand, or omit the cheese for a vegan version.