It was never necessarily in the cards that I would become a salad-maker. Growing up, we rarely ate salads. Occasionally, my mum made coleslaw with bottled sauce, and I recall a potato salad once when she was feeling adventurous. The closest Chinese dish that even resembled a salad was a jellyfish recipe of rubbery strands doused in vinegar and sesame oil.
My salad epiphany didn’t occur until much later in life, but my vegetable awakening came sooner. In my late teens, I became a vegetarian to the bewilderment of my Chinese relatives. At my uncle’s Chinese restaurant, they would taunt me with fried quail and suckling pig, and repeatedly question my meat-free status. My mother would innocently try to slip the occasional dried sea scallop into my egg drop soup (“What? It adds more flavor!”). But once I discovered the joy of vegetables, the sheer deliciousness of smoky, chargrilled broccoli, and roasted cauliflower, there was no turning back.
The potential of vegetables serves as my steadfast inspiration in salad-making. There is no greater delight than a mouthful of barbecued zucchini dressed with red wine vinegar and a sprig of dill, or the silkiness of grilled eggplant that has thirstily drunk up a punchy miso dressing. The thrill is in the pursuit of the perfect vegetable pairing—finding that flawless dressing, herb or nut that will enable a vegetable to shine.
My new book, Neighborhood, is an exploration of the potential of salads as a main, full-bodied meal. The book also considers how the daily rituals of food connect us, delivering a sense of belonging. Two years ago, when we first left Australia to travel through Europe before settling in Brooklyn, our family spent a meandering month in Isle Sur La Sorgue, a small town of moss-covered water wheels, canals and narrow ancient streets located about thirty minutes from Avignon. We arrived in the fall—the off-season for this market town that attracts many antiquarians in the summer—with time and curiosity on our side. Our days here were simple and ruminant. In the mornings, we would visit the boulangerie for our daily baguette, where the shopkeeper, a brusque expat from Park Slope, Brooklyn, took pity on our woeful attempts at French and agreed to converse in English. Twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, we wandered the local Provencal market, and indulged in the autumnal produce. We ardently nabbed locally grown cauliflower, pine mushrooms, chanterelles, eggplant, peppers, green beans and plump artichokes. Bountiful buckets of olives lined the streets, alongside vats of French lentils, grains, rice and legumes. Purveyors from the region offered their perfectly-aged cheeses and charcuterie.
These days in our French kitchen were rich and memorable. We cooked as a family and spent many quiet hours preparing our lunch and dinner. We created simple meals from whatever food was available and devoured the local flavors with zeal. We allowed our neighborhood to inspire our daily food choices, with delicious results. Many of the recipes we cooked during this fleeting month in Provence are part of Neighborhood’s “So Frenchie” chapter.
This recipe of Provencal eggplant with roasted peppers, zucchini, green beans and lentils is loosely based on a ratatouille. To intensify the flavors, the eggplant and zucchini are pan-fried first to encourage caramelization, bringing out the natural sweetness. They are then doused in red wine vinegar and roasted with peppers, green beans and tomatoes, creating a flavor-packed mélange of veggies to serve with lentils. This hearty, main-dish salad, brimming with spirit from the south of France and laced with personal memories, shows how food can help us feel connected to our local surroundings.
Provençal eggplant with roasted red peppers, zucchini, green beans, and puy lentils
Serves 4 to 6 | VG | GF
- 8 to 9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large eggplants (about 2 ½ pounds), halved lengthways and sliced diagonally into 1⁄2 inch (1 centimeter) pieces
- 2 zucchini (about 1 pound), sliced diagonally into ½-inch pieces
- 1 onion, finely sliced
- 1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
- 2 red bell peppers (about 1 pound), deseeded and sliced into thin strips
- 4 roma tomatoes (about 1 pound), roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons herbes de Provençe
- ½ pound green beans, trimmed and halved
- 1 ½ pound puy lentils, rinsed
- ½ cup pitted black olives (preferably wrinkly ones), torn in half
- 2 cups baby arugula leaves
- ½ cup at-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
- Sea salt and black pepper
- Red bell peppers: store-bought roasted red peppers
- Herbes de Provençe: dried basil, marjoram, rosemary, parsley, oregano or thyme
- Puy lentils: black or green varieties
Preheat the oven to 400 ̊F (200 ̊C).
Before roasting, I like to shallow-fry the eggplant and zucchini to soften them and start the process of caramelization. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan. Add some of the eggplant slices in a single layer, sprinkle with salt and pan-fry, turning often, until slightly softened and golden on both sides.
Repeat, adding more olive oil between batches, until all the eggplant slices have been cooked, then repeat with the zucchini. Set aside.
In a large roasting pan, combine the onion, garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes, red wine vinegar, herbes de Provençe, and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and roast for 25 minutes until the tomatoes and peppers are soft. Remove the tomatoes and peppers from the pan, add the eggplant, zucchini, and green beans and roast for another 20 to 25 minutes, until all the vegetables are very tender. Season to taste.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil, add the lentils and a big pinch of salt, and simmer over medium heat for around 20 minutes or until the lentils are tender but still have a bite to them. Drain.
To serve, combine the roasted vegetables with the lentils, olives, arugula and parsley. Season well and finish with a good drizzle of oil.