Texture is immensely important to me. Vegetarian and vegan food can quite often fall (literally) into the mush category. I welcome a slurpable soup, collapsed curry, and melting braised vegetable-anything with open arms, but sometimes I need my food to talk back. This grilled vegetable salad with chewy, tender, grapy wheat berries; sturdy portobello mushrooms; Ottolenghi-ish charred eggplant; and just-burst summer tomatoes all hold hands to make the antithesis to the (and I say this in the nicest way possible) slumpy suppers that I turn to in the cooler weather.
I predict you’ll see a fair bit of aforesaid “slumpy suppers” on this blog once the chill hits in a couple of months, but today we’re celebrating the intermingling fabric of food that must be chewed.
Smoothies are lovely. Pureed soups are a divine. Red lentil dhal is a dinner I make nearly every week. Still, with all of these soothing, velvety recipes, I like a little bite on top. For instance, I’ll top a smoothie with a sprinkle of coconut chips or granola, soup with toasted pumpkin seeds, and enjoy a refreshing cubed cucumber raita with my dhal. I need the contrast. I require the crunch. I crave the crispy.
Summer is a season that celebrates texture: floss-required corn on the cob; water-packed salads (feta and watermelon, crunchy lettuce with zippy vinaigrette, au courant grilled romaine (usually deconstructed) caesar salad); velvet peaches that are half food, half beverage; and to drink, the Canadian classic, an extra-spicy Caesar garnished with the works (dinner or liquid lunch is served).
Similar to how there is no universal food we can all agree on (except gelato: the common denominator for all humans), there is no universal texture that will please us all. I will often drift towards a texture more than a specific food to use as an edible lullaby for an emotional void, slay a craving, harness a food memory of the past, or Eternal Sunshine a gnarly childhood dining memory. The texture I specifically want to Eternal Sunshine, forget, disremember, untaste is that of shepherd’s pie: a meal enjoyed by many except me.
Growing up, shepherd’s pie was served at my house every Wednesday. My brother had guitar lessons, I was off to ballet class, and my sister was learning to tickle the ivories. My mom would serve us store-bought shepherd’s pie that would come out of the oven in an aluminum tin, its metallic taste permanently embedded in the side and corner pieces. The gelatinized ground beef, the wildly off-green peas, the machine-precision cubes of carrot, the curiously homemade-looking potato top. Plunked down in front of me, weeping out the bottom (while I wept internally), the potato topping would stay a perfect square and I would create a tight ketchup lattice to cover it all up and take the edge off.
Even with my vermillion ode to Mondrian, every Wednesday evening that pie would be looking back at me with the stink eye. It was on hump day that I realized casseroles turned me off and my stomach upside down. Throw a bunch of things together, bake it until it loses all structural integrity and what do you get? Muddiness. And mushiness. Muddy mushiness.
My shepherd’s pie experiences are unfortunately not limited childhood. Former boyfriends have made it for me (“but it’s homemade”). Former boyfriends’ mothers have made it for me (“but it’s homemade”). I would politely pick at it, ask for ketchup to camouflage what I was eating, and do my usual shepherd’s pie avoidance jig by stating, “I’m not feeling that hungry,” which wasn’t a lie as I wasn’t feeling “that hungry” when it was on my plate looking back at me, probably laughing. We meet again.
Another textural food issue I’ve carried with me is melted chocolate. At age 9 or 10 I attended a Christmas party with a chocolate fountain. I proceeded to dip pineapple wedges with their indigestible core still intact and pillowy marshmallows into the Augustus Gloop-approved waterfall. After coming down with the flu that evening, I could not smell, eat, or be near chocolate of any sort for a good five years. I enjoy it now in small doses––extra-milky hot chocolate (almost hold the chocolate) and in chocolate chip form, preferably ice cold. Still, nearly two decades later, if a recipe calls for melted chocolate, I scurry out of the kitchen while it’s melting or avoid the recipe completely.
For me, pleasurable dining is a lot about texture and the x-rated food writer term, “mouthfeel.” To be completely satisfied in life, the meal in front of me needs to be miles away from the consistency of those Wednesday evening shepherd’s pies and holiday chocolate fountains. Thankfully, the recipe I have here is halfway around the world in that respect. Brawny portobello mushrooms, wheat berries (you could use farro or oat groats) that burst between your molars (surprise!), creamy chickpeas to smooth it all out, bright-eyed early summer tomatoes, and eggplant in all its chargrilled glory combine to create an addictive summer grain main. It’s splashed with a cumin dressing enhanced with the secret weapon of my kitchen, giving this dish a pleasingly chorizo-like flavour: smoked paprika.
Middle Eastern-inspired, Mediterranean-infused, this grilled vegetable salad is my new Wednesday night meal and Thursday, Friday, Saturday lunch, getting better and better as it hangs out like a teenager off for summer holidays. The make-ahead aspect is nice too, as summertime cooking should be about quick trips in and out of the kitchen. And the best thing about this recipe? No ketchup required.
Grilled Vegetable Salad with Wheat Berries and Chickpeas Recipe
An awesome grilled vegetable salad recipe with eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, wheat berries, chickpeas, and a smoky cumin dressing. To make this recipe gluten-free, use quinoa instead of wheat berries. Enjoy warm, room temperature, or chilled.
1/2 cup uncooked wheat berries
1.5 cups cooked chickpeas (or use 1 can, drained and rinsed)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, mint, or basil
3 roma tomatoes, halved
1 eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
3 portobello mushrooms, stemmed
Avocado oil or other high-temperature oil
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoons smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
- Salad: Add wheat berries to a medium saucepan and cover with 2-inches of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 45 to 50 minutes, until grains are tender. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Transfer to a large bowl along with chickpeas and herbs.
- While wheat berries are cooking, preheat grill to medium. Coat vegetables in a touch of oil and season with salt. On the first side, grill tomatoes for 7 minutes, and eggplant and mushrooms for 5 minutes. Flip. On the second side, grill all vegetables for 5 minutes longer. When cool enough to handle, cut all vegetables into bite-sized pieces, keeping it chunky. Add to wheat berry mixture and toss.
- Dressing and Serving: Whisk all dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Add dressing to salad and toss to combine. Ideally, allow salad to marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired. Toss again before serving. Store airtight in refrigerator for up to 5 days.