Eggplant,  Pomegranate, and Za’atar Salad

Just in time for the weekend farmers markets, I had to publish this recipe. Like many these days, I can get lost in time browsing Pinterest and food blogs. And I thought I had seen a similar salad, but when I went back, I couldn’t find anything close too what I wanted. So in true Liz fashion, I winged it. What resulted was the salad in my dreams, and one I’ve craved pretty much every week since.

I cut my eggplant and zucchini into medium-to-small cubes, so they’d be perfectly bite sized for a salad, and tossed them on a sheet pan with olive oil and za’atar, a Middle East and Israeli spice blend that I really love, and roasted them.

I tossed the roasted veggies with toasted pine nuts, pomegranate arils (the name for the seeds inside the pomegranate), a little more zaatar, fresh chopped mint, and Israeli couscous or fregola sarda. Israeli couscous, also called pearl couscous, is larger than regular couscous and is widely available. Fregola sarda is a pasta from Sardinia that is similar in diameter although a little thicker, and toasted (although when you look the grains are a variety of colors from pale to deep brown), which provides an interesting flavor dimension. It isn’t as widely available or as affordable – I ordered mine off Amazon, and after the first two batches decided to save it and switch to couscous.

If you’ve never tried to remove seeds from a pomegranate, it can seem a little daunting. However, it requires a bowl of watery and a little patience to be incredibly rewarding. I prefer to lightly score the outside of the pomegranate, not cut through it like some methods suggest. I then out the whole pomegranate in my bowl of water and use my fingers to separate it in half. From there, I pry it into quarters and then begin gently brushing the arils from the white pith. I find if I bend the pith and gently run my fingers over the arils, they dislodge with a minimum of breakage. However,  if any do break, the water makes sure the juice doesn’t make a mess. The other benefit of the water is that the pith floats while the arils sink, so it’s easy to separate the two in the end. Once all the arils are removed, just fish out the pith, then put the seeds in a commander and rinse. They should be ready to use!

The flavor of the salad is very fresh and light, since the only “dressing” is olive oil and zaatar. The vegetables are tender without falling apart, and almost melt in the mouth. I always leave the skin of my eggplant on (even with the big globe eggplants) – it’s not tough or bitter, just provides a great texture. You can use more or less vegetables, depending on your preference – I’ve made batches (keeping everything else constant) that had 2 cups more roasted veggies and it still seemed like a well-balanced salad. The pine nuts provide a nutty and almost fatty (in a great way!) dimension to the salad. The star of this dish might just be the pomegranate arils – the crunch of the seed inside, the fresh pop of juice, it all just ties the flavors together perfectly and keeps it feeling light. The mint is another addition that is so needed, that fresh herbaceousness really adds a dimension of flavor that is needed. When I’ve skimped on it, the salad just didn’t have the right balance.

 

Eggplant, Pomegranate, and Za'atar Salad

Eggplant, Pomegranate, and Za'atar Salad

  • 1-2 pounds eggplant, any variety
  • 1-2 pounds zucchini
  • Za'atar
  • Olive oil
  • 2/3 cup fregola sarda or Israeli (or pearl) couscous
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1 pomegranate or 1 to 1-1/2 cups pomegranate arils
  • Half a bunch of fresh mint, roughly 8-10 stems, more or less to taste
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Wash and dry eggplant and zucchini. Leave the skins on both, and cut them into roughly half-inch cubes. It's okay if the eggplant cubes are a little larger, as they'll shrink when roasted, but try to keep the zucchini cubes the size you want them.
  • Place the veggies on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour olive oil over them, and sprinkle a generous amount of za'atar. Use your hands to combine everything, making sure all the vegetables are coated in oil and the spice is well-distributed. If needed, drizzle a little more oil. Smooth the veggies into an even layer (it's ok if they're a little mounded on the sheet) and place in oven.
  • Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, and use a metal spatula to stir the pieces and then smooth back into an even layer. If the veggies seem to be sticking badly to the sheet, drizzle a small amount of oil over them, stirring with the spatula to mix, before placing the sheet back in the oven. Bake for another 10-15 minutes, until they look browned and almost crispy. Remove from oven, and stir them again.
  • While the veggies are roasting, cook the pasta or couscous until al dente or desired level of doneness. When done, drain and place into a bowl.
  • Remove arils from whole pomegranate, rinsing to get off all the pith, and pat dry-ish (it's ok if not all moisture is removed).
  • When the veggies are out of the oven, use the spatula to move the hot veggies into the bowl with the pasta or couscous. Make sure to scrape the pan and transfer all veggie bits and any extra olive oil and za'atar from the pan into the bowl. Stir the ingredients in the bowl to coat the pasta in the veggies and their roasting oil.
  • Place the pine nuts on the baking sheet, and toast in the oven for 3 minutes, until a deep medium brown. You can toast them at the beginning (on a clean sheet) if you'd prefer, but I always end up doing it at the end, on my scraped-clean-but-with-a-layer-of-oil sheet and haven't had any problems.
  • Put the pomegranate arils and toasted pine nuts in the bowl. Pick the mint leaves off the stems, place the leaves in a big pile, and slice into thin ribbons. Put the mint in the bowl, and stir to combine all ingredients. You may want to sprinkle a little extra za'atar over the salad, as well.
  • Enjoy!
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