Wheat Berry Salad with Roasted Eggplant and Peppers

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This is one of those salads that simply sings the Soy Sugar Sherry mantra. It’s got a great balance of salty, sweet and savory and provides the basis for endless substitutions. Making this salad also uses a number of handy flavor boosting techniques that can be applied to almost any warm salad dish. It’s hearty enough to be a stand alone lunch or a side dish with, for example, roasted chicken and a green salad.

Wheat berries are the wholegrain form of wheat. They have not undergone any processing, which means that while they’re full of vitamins and fiber, they also take a little while to cook – approximately 45-50 minutes. While you may easily be able to find wheat berries in the bulk section at your local Whole Foods or health food store, here in central Ohio I was only able to find Bob’s Red Mill brand of organic hard red spring wheat berries, not that I mind Bob’s. There are other kinds of wheat berries than the hard red spring variety – hard white and spelt for example. I have yet to cook with these but will let you know when I do.

For this recipe, I soaked my wheat berries over night. This is optional and to be honest something I only do about half of the time when I’m organized enough to plan a dish more than 2 hours in advance. Soaking does cut down on the cooking time, but only by about 15 minutes. Because cooking wheat berries feels like a commitment, and because they are both versatile and hearty enough to keep in the fridge for a week, I tend to make more than my dish calls for and reserve some undressed berries in the fridge for salads or side dishes throughout the week.

Ingredients:

1.5 cups dry wheat berries

1.5 red peppers (or yellow/orange), large dice

1 medium Italian eggplant, large cubes

2 scallions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2.5 tablespoons capers, drained

¾ cup mix fresh herbs such as flat leaf parsley and basil, rough chop

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Total cooking time: 1 hour and 10 minutes

Soak the wheat berries overnight in plenty of water. Again, this is optional. Rinse the wheat berries and transfer to sauce pan filled with cold, well-salted water, about 4 cups. Bring the water to a boil uncovered, then lower the heat to a simmer and cover. Some water may evaporate so you will need to keep an eye on it, particularly after 30 minutes.

After turning down the wheat berries, work on your eggplant and peppers. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut one medium-sized eggplant into large cubes and 1.5 red peppers into a large dice. The eggplant will reduce in size when roasted which is why you’ll want to cut the red pepper slightly smaller. Orange or yellow peppers are of course fine as well.

Place the eggplant and peppers on a large baking sheet and coat them with olive oil and a little kosher salt and black pepper. Make sure they’re spread out on the sheet to encourage even roasting. Roast for 20 minutes until soft and golden. For extra color, you can put them under the broiler for a few minutes to finish them off. Once they’re done, transfer to a large mixing bowl where you’ll be adding the rest of the ingredients and tossing the salad.

To the eggplant and peppers add the thinly sliced scallions, olive oil, vinegar and capers. Be sure to drain the capers before adding them, though a little brine is fine. Stir these ingredients around so that the scallions marinate in the dressing and lose some of their oniony bite. To the top of this mixture add your herbs. To this recipe I added parsley and basil. The herbs I had were the early spring variety, and therefore pretty small and delicate so I left most of them whole. I would give normal size herbs a rough chop as you want to be able to see them in the dish. If you don’t have basil, you could definitely just use parsley. Mint and cilantro would also be nice additions.

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When the wheat berries are ready, drain them in a colander and toss them with some olive oil. They should already be seasoned from the salted water. Once they have cooled slightly, begin to add them cup by cup into the rest of your ingredients and toss. For this recipe, I used approximately ¾ of the cooked wheat berries. The nice thing about adding them incrementally is that you can decide when you have your preferred ratios. As with pasta, there’s nothing worse than making a great salad and dressing, only to mask it with too much starch and leaving you with a bland dish. Once you’re happy with the balance, taste for saltiness and acidity. If needed, add more balsamic and salt.

Tips and Techniques:

By seasoning all your ingredients separately, you likely won’t need to add salt and pepper by the end. This will also help to guarantee that each bite is flavorful. On the taste front, you can easily boost flavor by roasting vegetables as opposed to sautéing them. I find that peppers and eggplant in particular are much better in taste and texture when roasted.

Cut the bite of onions with vinegar. I love onions bit I hate tasting them all day. This happens mostly with red or yellow onion, but scallions will also do the trick. If I’m using raw onions in a salad, I try to make sure they hit the dressing first, and marinate a bit before adding other ingredients. Vinegar or lemon will cut the onion flavor that stays with you but keeps the sharpness you desire. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for it, but I haven’t got the time to find out.

When making any salad with a starch, assemble your other ingredients first, then add the starch in increments. This will help to guarantee that your guests are not fishing for that lone tomato or slice of chicken in a see of bowtie pasta salad.

Finally, some tips for substitutions using the Soy Sugar Sherry mantra. As I said, the flavors in this dish are well balanced. That means that while substitutions are endless, you want to maintain coverage of the three groups. Here’s a simple chart to help you brainstorm. Add some fresh herbs and olive oil to these salad combinations and you’ve got yourself a great new dish!

Soy Sugar Sherry + Herbs
Capers Red peppers Balsamic vinegar Basil, parsley
Feta Dried Cranberries Sherry vinegar Mint, parsley
Parmesan Butternut squash Lemon juice (+zest) Sage
Olives Cherry tomatoes Balsamic or red wine vinegar Basil
Goat cheese Sweet potato + corn Lime juice (+zest) Cilantro

If you have more combination ideas, we’d love to hear them!

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