A few years ago we had friends over for dinner, and I assembled an ad hoc platter of grilled eggplant topped with a zippy shaved fennel salad, crumbled feta and a spatter of fresh mint. It was simple but unique, outshining the burgers and corn on our plates. I now make this grilled eggplant salad with fennel and feta several times a summer as a welcome departure from—or complement to—the predictable tomato salads and grilled vegetables that dress our table.
I’m an eggplant junkie. Juniper loves it too (Ella, not so much), which never ceases to shock me, seeing as though I didn’t taste my first eggplant until I was in high school. Back then I worked at a store called Goodnight Moon, which sold children’s gifts, including beanie babies—this was during that time when everybody was convinced the plush little animals were going to become big-time collector items (sorry guys). We had several regulars, including a retired married couple who did everything together, from collecting beanie babies, to wearing coordinating t-shirts, to mowing their lawn using his-and-hers matching lawnmowers (of which they were quite proud). One day they brought me two gleaming, plump eggplants from their garden as a thank you for stashing a few unicorns behind the counter for them. They also brought a dinner date request from their son, who I had never met, and who I gathered was quite a lot older than me. I turned down their son, but I gladly accepted the eggplants.
I had never cooked or eaten eggplant before, but I must have seen them on the Food Network (to which I was addicted at the time) as I somehow knew what to do. (This was before the time of easy Googling, which makes me feel old.) I sliced the eggplants, breaded and pan-fried them, and served them over jarred Ragu sauce. The dish was far from perfect—in fact I’m pretty sure the eggplants were raw in the center—but it was love at first bite. Actually, now that I think about it, there’s a good chance that the reason I fell for James in college is that he made (and still makes) a mean eggplant parmesan. Swoon.
Grilled eggplant salad
Focus, Nicki! (Now I’m getting all sentimental—see what eggplants do to me?!) Ok, back to this salad. It’s especially great for entertaining, as you can make all of the components ahead of time. The dressing can be whisked together a few days ahead, and the eggplant can be grilled and left at room temperature for several hours. You can even shave the fennel a few hours ahead—just top it with damp paper towels and refrigerate it. Once you’re ready to eat, all you have to do is toss the fennel with the dressing and assemble.
I could seriously eat this salad every single night. Although, I might need to start limiting my eggplant intake, lest I start wanting to coordinate my outfits with James.
Grilled Eggplant Salad with Fennel, Feta & Mint
- 1 large Italian eggplant (about 2 pounds), cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil , divided
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 small garlic clove , grated
- 2 medium fennel bulbs , trimmed and halved
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
Preheat a grill to medium.
Measure out ¼ cup of the olive oil. Brush the eggplant on both sides with the measured olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar over top and rub or brush to roughly coat (it doesn’t have to be perfect).
Clean and oil the grill grates. Grill the eggplant for 2-4 minutes, or until grill marks form on the bottom. Flip the slices; cook until grill marks form on the other side and the eggplant is mostly tender, about 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet or dish, and cover lightly with foil to let steam. Do Ahead: The eggplant can be grilled up to 6 hours in advance. Leave at room temperature.
Place the lemon juice in a small bowl or jar and add the grated garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Pour in the remaining ¼ cup olive oil and whisk or shake to combine. Do Ahead: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before using.
Cut the fennel into paper-thin slices using a mandoline or a sharp knife. Place the fennel in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add the dressing and toss to coat.
Arrange the eggplant slices on a platter. Top with the fennel salad, and garnish with the feta and mint. Serve!