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I've been to Yom Ha'atzmaut picnics that were fun and others that seemed to be too much hassle. The troublesome picnics usually were the result of menus that were too ambitious and involved too much food that might spoil. Often the culprit causing picnickers to worry was chicken or meat. How long was it left outside before being cooked? Was it really cooked enough to be safe? I've seen chicken that was casually grilled and served to people when it was still pink inside.
For eating alfresco, I prefer worry-free foods. Bring whole vegetables for putting on the grill and some for eating raw - tomatoes, peppers, onions and eggplants. Enjoy them with olive oil and lively seasonings and with good fresh pita.
If you'd like your picnic meal to be more substantial, bring hard-boiled eggs and Mediterranean cheeses that keep well, like feta, haloumi or yellow cheese. Brined and firm slicing cheeses are great companions for grilled eggplant, as their salty pungency complements the eggplant's taste perfectly. Still, even though these cheeses were originally developed to keep milk before refrigerators were invented, it's best to bring them in a cooler and keep it in a shady place during the picnic.
If you like to grill food at the picnic, a good candidate is eggplant. Just prick it a few times and set it on the grill; as it cooks, turn it occasionally so it grills evenly. Then you have the makings of an easy salad that tastes great inside pita with eggs, cheese and sliced tomatoes.
Unlike meat, with eggplant you can be relaxed because you don't need to pay much attention to the timing - it's better a little overcooked than undercooked, but there's no need to be exact. Even if its skin turns black, inside it's still fine.
Indeed, at my house, we like the grilled eggplant on its own and often, in spite of my plans, the eggplant doesn't make it to the salad bowl. A fresh eggplant just off the grill tastes good all by itself, or drizzled lightly with fine olive oil and sprinkled with a little salt and pepper if you like. You can cut the eggplants and bring condiments for people to add to taste - s'hug or hot pepper sauce is great for a sharp pepper taste, or a little lemon juice and a sprinkling of za'atar, or some chopped olives or capers.
To make the eggplant into a salad, just mix in olive oil and, if you like, a few other flavorings, as they do in Italy, southern France and Spain. An easy salad to make this way is one flavored in the Provencal style, with olive oil, lemon juice, olives and capers.
I like to use both black and green olives. For my taste, the salad is best with flavorful olives, like black Kalamata and green cracked olives with garlic, often labeled Syrian olives.
Sardinians make similar eggplant salads, wrote Micol Negrin in The Italian Grill, by beating grilled eggplant with a fork until it forms a chunky puree, then adding crushed garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and a little dry white wine (instead of lemon juice). She recommends serving it with crisp flatbread or with grilled ciabatta or country bread.
Another easy eggplant salad that's perfect for picnics is a Catalan dish called escalivada. To make it, you put whole onions and red and green peppers on the grill along with the eggplants, and tomatoes too, if you like. Once all the vegetables are tender, you remove the peel and cut the vegetables in pieces, as large or as small as you wish. Then mix them lightly and season the salad with salt, olive oil and minced garlic.
PROVENCAL EGGPLANT SALAD WITH OLIVES AND CAPERS
This recipe is based on a southern French eggplant appetizer flavored with tapenade, a Provencal spread of pureed black olives, capers and anchovies. For better color, I make the salad with diced olives and whole capers instead; I omit the anchovies since not everyone likes them.
At a picnic this is best served with crusty French bread or pita and with hard-boiled eggs. At home you can serve it on a bed of romaine lettuce and garnish it with
For extra flavor and color, you can add the other grilled vegetables used to make Spanish escalivada - strips of grilled red and green peppers and thin slices of grilled onions.
2 medium eggplants (total about 1 kg.)
2 large very fresh garlic cloves, finely minced
1â„4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme or 3â„4 tsp. dried
salt and freshly ground pepper
1â„2 cup black olives, pitted, quartered or cut in large dice
1â„2 cup green olives , pitted, quartered or cut in large dice
1 Tbsp. capers, drained, chopped if large, left whole if small
3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Prick each eggplant five or six times with a fork. Set them on barbecue at medium- or medium-high heat. Grill eggplants, turning them over occasionally, for 40 minutes or until they feel soft when you press them. You can use lower heat if your coals have cooled; the eggplant will simply take longer. Let stand until cool enough to handle. Cut off caps. Either remove peel with the aid of a paring knife or halve them lengthwise and scoop out the pulp with a spoon.
Chop eggplant with a knife, leaving it a bit chunky, or mash it with a fork or a wooden spoon. Transfer to a bowl. Add garlic and mix well. Stir in olive oil, lemon juice, thyme, salt, pepper, black and green olives, capers and parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve in a shallow bowl or on a plate.
Makes 5 or 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.
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