Eggplant and Halloumi Salad with Edible Flowers

The past few weeks I’ve been taking care of my friend’s garden while she’s on a month long vacation, and it has been an absolute delight (the garden I mean, not the absence of my dear friend). It’s made me realize how much I miss gardening, the feel of having my hands in the dirt, the joy of eating the freshest possible veggies, the smell of tomato vines and basil, the low drone of bees collecting pollen. It’s a process that soothes the part of my brain that’s always going going going, a sort of meditation, that always leaves me feeling refreshed and lighthearted.

This recipe is a celebration of spring, inspired by all of the goodies that are growing and blossoming right now. The eggplant is producing in abundance, propped up with a trellis to counteract the heavy weighted fruits (yes, technically an eggplant is a fruit—not a veggie— since it contains seeds. Mind blown? Maybe?). There are so many herbs—basil, mint, oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary—that I start feeling overwhelmed just thinking of the possibilities of what the heck to do with all of them. And the edible flowers—ohh the edible flowers! My favorite part of the garden and this salad.

Eggplant & Halloumi Salad with Edible Flowers, drizzled with Lemon Tahini Sumac dressing. A perfect recipe to celebrate spring.

The cilantro had all bolted (in other words, was flowering and in the process of going to seed), as had the fennel and arugula. All taste like a variant of the real thing, the downy white cilantro flowers a bit more mild and earthy, and the sunshine yellow bursts of fennel blossoms more warm and sharply anise-flavored. Society garlic, with their delicate purple petals, and red and orange marigolds, are sporadically planted around the garden to attract beneficial bees and insects. I collected the peppery flavored nasturtiums and the mild and gorgeous star-shaped blue borage just up the road, where they have begun to bloom and are free for the taking. A small volunteer begonia in one of my succulent pots by my front door produces pastel pink flowers with a surprising lemon zing.

The eggplant in this recipe is sliced and cooked to dreamy creamy perfection, and placed on a bed of vibrant herbs and arugula. Halloumi, if you’re unfamiliar, is a Greek style cheese that is quite firm and retains a very high melting point. This means you can grill it, fry it, cook it, without it losing shape. I enjoy it best when still warm. The tahini-lemon-sumac dressing is bright and earthy, which serves to both unite and elevate the many flavors of herbs and flowers present in this dish. The edible flowers I’ve used for this salad are by no means the ones you have to use. It’s quite amazing how many flowers are edible once you start looking in to the subject. They are such a fun ingredient, each lending their own unique flavor, and all of them beautiful. If you have any flowers growing in your yard—or in your neighbors yard (if they wouldn’t mind, of course)— I encourage you to investigate if they are in fact edible. If you ever want to add some pizzaz/flare/pow/bang/allure/dazzle/wow factor to a dish, edible flowers are the answer.

Here is a great guide I’ve found with pictures and descriptions of edible flowers.

Eggplant and Halloumi Salad with Edible Flowers

recipe inspired by Bon Appetit

serves 4

Notes: Only eat flowers that you know beyond a doubt are NOT poisonous. Also, stay away from flowers that may have been sprayed with pesticides. Other than that, feel free to experiment with whatever edible flowers you have access to. You don’t have to use the same edible flowers that I did. Here’s a very thorough guide on what flowers to use, and also what to steer clear of.

If you have the right equipment, such as a high-powered blender (like a Vitamix), or a good quality food processor (like a Cuisinart), I encourage you to make your own tahini for the dressing. I often find that tahini bought at the store tastes old, or sometimes even rancid. Making your own ensures you will have the best tasting ingredients. Here’s a link from The Kitchn on How To Make Tahini.

 

1 1/2 cups (loosely packed) arugula
1 cup (loosely packed) mint leaves
1 cup (loosely packed) basil leaves (torn if the leaves are big)
1/2 cup (loosely packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/3 cup chopped green onion
2 medium eggplant, stems cut off
1/3 cup olive oil for brushing
8 oz. Halloumi cheese, cut into 1/3 inch slices
A handful of assorted edible flowers
sea salt
Tahini Lemon & Sumac Dressing (recipe follows)

In a medium bowl, toss together the arugula, mint, basil, parsley, and green onion. Transfer and spread out evenly onto a serving platter.

With a vegetable peeler, remove vertical strips of the eggplant skin every inch or so. Cut eggplant in 1/3 inch slices. Heat a griddle over medium-high. Lightly brush with olive oil and sprinkle salt on only one side of each eggplant slice just before grilling. Place the eggplant slices oil-side down and cook 5-7 minutes, or until eggplant is beginning to soften and has char marks. Just before flipping, brush the top sides with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Flip slices and cook again for 5-7 minutes, or until eggplant is cooked through. Remove from stovetop and set aside on a plate.

Brush Halloumi cheese with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Grill each side just until char lines appear, about 1-2 minutes on each side.

To assemble: on top of the bed of arugula and herbs, alternate staggered layers of eggplant and Halloumi cheese. Drizzle desired amount of dressing over the eggplant and Halloumi. Top with edible flowers. Serve/enjoy immediately.

 

Tahini Lemon & Sumac Dressing

1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup hot water
3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground sumac
1 clove garlic
sea salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to a blender, and blend on low until smooth. At first the dressing may appear curdled, but just keep blending until everything becomes fully incorporated and creamy.

 

Romanesco with Meyer Lemon & Green Olive Salsa

Have you ever seen a veggie more beautiful than a Romanesco? Neither have I.

I picked up a couple of these lookers at the farmers market while visiting family in California. As I stood there selecting the ones I wanted, I witnessed about half of the perusing population stop and stare at the green spiral perfection that makes up this vegetable. There were audible oohs and ahhs from the crowd, lots of picture taking (including myself, of course), and out loud curiosity about what the heck it is and how to cook it.

Romanesco is a cruciferous vegetable in the same family as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and brussel sprouts. In taste it’s closest to cauliflower, but milder, sweeter, and nuttier in flavor, and holds together much better without crumbling.

When I brought it home and presented it to my 13 year old brother, informing him that I’d be cooking for dinner, he exclaimed, “You can eat that?! It looks like a Thai palace!”

I’m sure there are some picky kids out there who don’t get enough vegetables in their diet, but could be tricked into eating romanesco because it just looks so darn awesome. My brother, however, is not one of these kids. He has always enjoyed pretty much any food given to him, never turning down an opportunity to try something new. Now that he’s officially a teenager (and taller than me! Where does the time go?), he’ll have seconds of anything as well. He did enjoy it though, gobbling down cross sections of the so-called green Thai palace, and not surprisingly, loaded his plate up for round two.

Citrus season is still in full swing in central California, with trees all across town drooping heavily with oranges, grapefruits, and lemons, so I gladly accepted a bagful of Meyer lemons from a friend who couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. While googling inventive ways to use these juicy bursts of sunshine, I came across a recipe that uses these lemons in a salsa of sorts—albeit devoid of tomato, cilantro—or for that matter—any flavors reminiscent of the more traditional Mexican salsas. The recipe calls for dicing up the whole fruit, rind and all, along with chopped green olives and parsley. I was immediately intrigued, and thought it would be the perfect accompaniment for the romanesco.

The romanesco is cut into wedges (talk about vegetable aesthetics), pan seared to crispy-tender perfection, topped with the bright and earthy salsa, and finished with a healthy handful of freshly shaved parmesan cheese. My brother and I would like to inform you that the end result was delicious. This dish brought a much needed splash of whimsical lemony sunshine to a cold winter night (during which I refused to take off my thick ski socks and beanie, even while cooking and eating said dinner).

Romanesco with Meyer Lemon & Green Olive Salsa

Salsa recipe adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin

Notes: Only use Meyer lemons for this recipe. The skin of the Meyer lemon is much thinner than regular ol’ lemons, and the rind much less bitter. Also, this salsa would be good with lots of other vegetables (I'm thinking grilled asparagus, or perhaps eggplant), and I have a hunch it would be great paired with fish as well.


2 Tablespoons finely diced shallot
1 Tablespoon champagne vinegar
2 Tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
3/4 cup green olives, pitted and diced
1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons olive oil, separated
2 Meyer lemons
sea salt and pepper to taste
1 large Romanesco
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan Reggiano


Combine the shallot and champagne vinegar in a small bowl. Set aside while preparing the remaining salsa ingredients. In a medium bowl, combine parsley, olives, and 1/4 cup olive oil.
Slice off the stem and blossom ends of the Meyer lemons, then cut the lemons (skin and all) into 1/8 inch cubes. Add to bowl, along with shallot and vinegar mixture. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Remove any leaves from the romanesco, and cut the stem so it can stand on it’s own, like a pine tree. Cut romanesco in quarters, from tip to base. Then cut each quarter into thirds. For each wedge, cut away about half of the core, but make sure to leave enough of the core intact so it doesn’t fall apart.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add one Tablespoon of olive oil. When hot, add however many wedges of romanesco that will fit without crowding. Sprinkle with salt, then cover pan with a tightly fitting lid. Sear romanesco 3-4 minutes on each side, or until nicely browned and just tender. Repeat with remaining wedges, adding more olive oil as needed.

Transfer romanesco wedges to a platter. Serve warm, topped with desired amount of salsa and parmesan cheese.

 

Butternut Squash with Maple Black Pepper Walnuts & Browned Sage Butter

I know it’s silly, but I get really excited when I make a trip back to the mainland and see common everyday birds that don’t exist in Hawaii. I have a hard time restraining myself from squealing in fascinated exclamation every time I see blue jays, seagulls, geese, hawks, and even crows.

Crows go hand in hand with the foggy winter months in my hometown in central California. I've been here for the past couple weeks visiting family, and every time I go outside, I spot them congregating among the leafless trees. These black winged creatures are admittedly a little creepy, but I’ve always been intrigued by their uncanny mental capacity. Some consider them smarter than dogs and on par with primate intelligence, while others claim that they are as clever as a 7 year old child.

Driving by a walnut orchard on the outskirts of town, I pulled over to watch the crows search for old nuts that had been left behind during the late fall harvests. The birds would carry the encased walnuts in their beaks to the road, drop them on the asphalt, and patiently wait on the sidelines for a passing car to run over the walnut, cracking the shell and exposing the meat inside. Voila! Dinner is served.

Spending time in central California during the winter means I have access to all sorts of produce that I can’t get fresh on Maui. And you better believe I was at the local farmer's market every chance I could get. Hand shelled walnuts are abundantly available, and taste discernibly fresh and sweet (I think the crows would agree). I also picked up some butternut squash since it's one of my favorite winter treats, and rarely available as a locally grown option in Hawaii.

Cooking the butternut squash face up in the oven caramelizes it to roasty perfection, which is wonderfully comforting when it’s damp and chilly outside. The walnuts are lightly toasted, coated in warm maple syrup and a generous amount of freshly cracked black pepper, then allowed to cool until they are extra crunchy. And I thought it couldn't hurt to top everything with some crispy sage and brown butter, two ingredients that are sure to make any winter vegetable taste divine.

Butternut Squash with Maple Black Pepper Walnuts and Sage Brown Butter

Butternut Squash with Maple Black Pepper Walnuts & Browned Sage Butter

 

Maple Black Pepper Walnuts
1/2 cup walnut halves
3 Tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of sea salt
1 teaspoon water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread walnuts out on a baking sheet and toast for 8-10 minutes, or until just starting to turn color and fragrant. Remove from oven and set aside.
In a small pan, warm the maple syrup, black pepper and salt over medium heat until the syrup begins to lightly bubble. Add in the water and walnuts. Stir and fold constantly for 3-5 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and caramelized.
Spread the nuts out evenly on a parchment lined tray, and allow to cool and harden completely, about 15-20 minutes. When cool, roughly chop the walnuts.


Roasted Butternut Squash with Browned Sage Butter
2 medium butternut squash, cut lengthwise in half, seeds removed
1 Tablespoon olive oil
4 Tablespoons butter
25-30 medium sage leaves
sea salt

Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. Place squash halves cut side up on a large baking sheet. Divide the olive oil evenly among the four halves, coating the cut side. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. Roast for 40-50 minutes, or until the squash tender and easily poked with a fork.
Heat the butter over medium heat. The butter will become bubbly and frothy. When the bubbles begin to subside and the butter starts turning a light brown and smells pleasantly nutty, add the sage leaves. Stir until the sage leaves are crisp, about 30 seconds.
Drizzle the browned butter over roasted squash halves, and divide the sage leaves evenly among the squash halves. Top with maple black pepper walnuts. Serve warm.