Fried Eggplant, Tomato, and Peach Salad

When it comes to seasons, I think we can all pretty much agree on Winter (cold! dark!) and Spring (warmer! the end of Winter!) but are often divided on Summer and Fall. If your allegiance stands with summer, you most likely flourish in the heat and the warmer, longer, sunshine-filled days, spend lots of time at the sea, and look forward to the arrival of Burger and Ice Cream and Lemonade Season. If you're on Team Fall, on the other hand, you probably welcome a little frost, the changing colors of the leaves, and sweaters and scarves and pumpkin-everything.

I myself stand firmly in the Summer camp; I mourn the end of my Very Favorite Season, and September 1st (while not the official end of summer) is one of the most unanticipated days of the year for me (second only to the day after Christmas, My Favorite Holiday). I adore June, July, and August, love cooking with all that's in season, pride myself on my vast sundress collection, and positively relish leaving work at 5:00 and finding that the sun is still shining and that there are aperitivi all'aperto to be had with friends. I always feel a little crestfallen when I (inevitably) feel the first autumnal chill in the air, and here in Rome, Fall seems to be most certainly on its way. The metro in the morning is packed again; evenings have become decidedly cooler; I've even worn jeans to work already (sigh). 

Having said all that, summer doesn't technically end until September 21st, and therefore for the next 18 days, I will very much carry on as if Fall has decided to surprise us all and take the year off. Today's Fried Eggplant, Tomato, and Peach Salad -- which comes from Food52 writer Emily Connor -- is a dish that allows me to pretend that my least favorite season is not right around the corner; my market still has some very good tomatoes, lots of basil, a last lingering decent peach or two, and lots of in-its-prime-eggplant. The finished dish is, as the cookbook it comes from proclaims, mighty, a glorious mix of different textures, flavors, and temperatures. We've got a good dose of juicy sweet tomatoes and peaches, crisp refreshing cucumber, plus dreamy mozzarella di bufala and the star of the show, cubes of crispy, golden brown eggplant, made downright addictive with a good sprinkle of salt (think french fry). The whole thing is tied together with a splash of sunshine-y lemon vinaigrette and a sprinkle of I-make-everything-better basil, and all together, it was a symphony of a dinner, and one where you feel vaguely healthy (fruit, veg!) but still satisfied (cheese! fried food!) And re: the fried eggplant, well, let's face it, the recent sneak preview of Fall did make frying both possible and bearable, I admit it. One (begrudgingly) won point for Fall!

A couple of notes: In hindsight, I wish I had cut the eggplant in to larger pieces (like I said, it was the star for me). I kept them on the smaller side, but when I make this again I'll stick to Emily's advise of 3/4 inch pieces. The cornstarch/flour mixture ensures a nice crispiness to your eggplant; if you have it, Wondra flour can also be used. If you can't find preserved lemon (which can be found at specialty food stores here) you can always mix olive oil, lemon juice, and lemon zest to taste with a little salt and pepper to achieve a lemon-y dressing nonetheless. Finally, a nectarine would be a good substitute for the peach if you'd like, and if you'd prefer, burrata instead of the mozzarella di bufala.

Looking for other eggplant (aka melanzane) recipes? I've got this Parmigiana di melanzane, these polpette di melanzane, this Sicilian eggplant caponata, this pasta with swordfish, eggplant, and tomatoes, and this rigatoni with eggplant, mozzarella, and tomatoes.

Recipe from Emily Connor via Mighty Salads (Food52)
Serves 4

Ingredients for the salad:
1 eggplant, cut in to 3/4 inch cubes
1 large cucumber, cubed (Persian cucumbers if possible)
2 cups (300 grams) cherry tomatoes, halved
1 peach, thinly sliced
8 ounces (224 grams) mozzarella di bufala, torn in to pieces
A good handful of basil (around 1 cup) thinly sliced

Cornstarch/flour as needed (I used a heaping tablespoon each) 

Ingredients for the dressing:
1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon rind
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or as needed
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (if you have it)

In a small bowl, whisk together all of the vinaigrette ingredients and set aside.

Dust the eggplant cubes with the cornstarch and flour mixture (I used a heaping 1 tablespoon of each) in a large bowl. In a large skillet, warm the vegetable oil over medium-high heat and fry the eggplant in a single layer, cooking and turning until brown and tender, about 3-5 minutes. When the eggplant is fried, lay it on a paper towel lined plate to drain, and repeat as needed. Season with salt. 

In a large bowl, toss together the cucumbers, peach, tomatoes, and half the vinaigrette. Toss to combine and let sit for a couple of minutes. Arrange the salad on a large serving platter, then scatter the eggplant, mozzarella, and basil over the top. Drizzle the rest of the vinaigrette over, sprinkle with salt and a few grinds of salt and pepper, and eat immediately.

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