Yotam Ottolenghi’s most versatile summer salad

You can eat this tomato and onion salad hot, at room temperature, or chilled from a jar kept in the fridge

Charred tomatoes with feta and harissa pine nuts, a dish inspired by North African salads. Photographs: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

Charred tomatoes with feta and harissa pine nuts, a dish inspired by North African salads. Photographs: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

 

When you hear “summer salad”, I bet the first thing that comes to mind isn’t a bunch of vegetables cooked within an inch of their lives and left to hang out so their juices meld and their flavours turn hearty and complex. These kinds of techniques are usually left to robust meaty stews or wintry soups and not applied to the cream of the summer’s freshest and juiciest crop.

In reality, some of the best and most wonderful dishes using summer’s glut are doing just that and with huge success. They may not look like your typical salad; they can also be seen as dips or spreads. But salads are what they are because they keep the integrity of the vegetables as they are mixed together, and they are mostly served cold, alongside other dishes.

Though you can find cooked salads all around the northern and eastern Mediterranean — French ratatouille and Italian peperonata are variations on the theme — I find that the best examples are served in North Africa, particularly in Morocco and Tunisia. This is where you will often find little bites of exquisitely cooked vegetables, served alongside fresh raw salads. Called kemia, they are the equivalent of meze or tapas in other parts of the region.

Taktouka is one of my favourites: It involves grilling green pepper over fire or in the oven and then cooking it slowly in a pan with chopped tomatoes, garlic, cumin and lots of olive oil. It gets better after a day or two, once the flavours have been left to develop and the ingredients to interact and amalgamate. Zaalouk is another popular variant, in which aubergines take the place of the peppers; they can be grilled first or cooked throughout in the pan with the tomatoes.

I am not sure which came first, these cooked salads or the soft white North African breads they are often served with, but for me they are inseparable. Each is actually a good reason for the other’s existence. The bread is essential for soaking up every bit of the splendidly flavoured salad juices, while the salad atop a slice lifts it to new bready heights.

Chopped onion, red pepper, jalapeño and garlic are roasted for the salad
Chopped onion, red pepper, jalapeño and garlic are roasted for the salad

Grilling all or some of the vegetables before cooking them in the pan is a way of intensifying the flavours and adding a bit of char, smoke and bittersweetness to the mix. In mechouia, a Tunisian salad made with peppers, onions and tomatoes, all the vegetables are first grilled well and then minced. The underlying flavour of the grill is both unmistakable and totally seductive, just as it is in mechouia’s more famous cousin from the eastern Mediterranean: the aubergine salad baba ghanouj.

There are, in fact, countless variations on all of these salads, differing regionally and even from one family to the next. Ingredients such as courgettes, carrots, pumpkins or potatoes are often thrown into the mix, as well as hot chillies, lemon juice and spices like caraway and cinnamon.

This inherent flexibility you have with the ingredients, coupled with the different ways you cook them, is a reason to celebrate these salads and the wonderful tapestry they create.

Harissa pine nuts are cooked until golden and used to top the salad.
Harissa pine nuts are cooked until golden and used to top the salad.

Another reason to rejoice, which is perhaps more relevant to a modern cook with a busy life, is the versatility of these salads — the many different uses they have. This is really what I had in mind when I created my own take on these North African dishes: charred tomatoes with feta, cooked in the oven from start to finish.

Starting off, it can be served hot as a chunky sauce over couscous, pasta or rice. Once it has cooled down a little, you can serve it as condiment to meat or alongside other vegetable dishes to create your own kemia. Finally, you can put it in a jar and keep in the fridge for a couple of days (I’d remove the feta for this), ready as an instant sandwich filler or to proudly reappear on the table with a bunch of other summery salads.

GRILLED TOMATOES AND ONIONS WITH FETA-HARISSA PINE NUTS

Serves four

Ingredients

5 tbsp olive oil
450g red onions, each peeled and cut through the core into eight wedges
2 red peppers, seeded, stemmed and cut into three-centimetre pieces
2 jalapeños, cut into one-centimeter-thick rounds, stems discarded
1 head garlic, halved horizontally, cloves split in half
1½kg plum tomatoes
20g roughly chopped fresh coriander, plus one tablespoon, for garnish
1 tbsp coriander seeds
Sea salt
115g cherry tomatoes with the vine attached
115g Greek feta, roughly crumbled into large chunks
25g pine nuts
½tbsp harissa paste

Method

1. Heat the oven to 245 degrees Celsius, or equivalent. Bring a large pot of water to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. Add 2 tablespoons oil, the onions, peppers, jalapeños and garlic to a large 26-by-34-centimeter roasting pan and give everything a good stir. Bake for 25 minutes, stirring two to three times, until softened and well charred. Remove the garlic halves and use a small knife to remove the cloves, adding them back into the roasting pan and discarding the papery skins.

3. Meanwhile, use a small knife to remove the core from the plum tomatoes and then carve a small X across the bottom of each tomato. Add half the plum tomatoes to the simmering water and blanch just until the skins begin to pull away from the flesh, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the plum tomatoes to a large colander to drain, then repeat with the remaining plum tomatoes. Once cool enough to handle, peel the plum tomatoes, discarding the skins, then roughly chop the flesh, seeds and all.

4. Add the plum tomatoes, 20g coriander, coriander seeds and 1¾tsp salt to the roasting pan and use the back of a large spoon to mash everything together, breaking up the garlic and jalapeños a little. Return to the oven for another 35 minutes, stirring twice throughout, or until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture has thickened. Remove from the oven and set the oven to the grill setting.

5. Top the charred vegetables with the cherry tomatoes and feta and drizzle with one tablespoon oil. Return to the oven on the middle rack and grill until the feta and cherry tomatoes have taken on some colour, 10 to 15 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, heat the remaining two tablespoons oil in a small frying pan over medium-high. Once hot, add the pine nuts and cook until golden, shaking the pan frequently, one to two minutes. Carefully stir in the harissa, then transfer to a small bowl.

7. When ready to serve, spoon the harissa pine nuts all over the vegetables and sprinkle with the remaining coriander. – New York Times.

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