To the average six-year-old (and perhaps your own inner six-year-old), I can’t imagine caponata would have all that much appeal. A rustic mash of stewed vegetables? Yuck.
I triple dog dare you to try it, then. Appearances can be so deceiving.
Caponata, an earthy summer dish starring eggplant and tomatoes, is the Sicilian answer to Provence’s ratatouille. (Your kids saw Ratatouille, right?) Looking at the ingredient list, it seems unlikely that you’ll end up with something edible, but with the addition of a sweetened vinegar reduction (or agrodolce, “sour-sweet” sauce) and time to mellow in the fridge, the late-summer ingredients settle into a lush, sweet-salty-tangy balance.
Like ratatouille, caponata is traditionally served as a side dish, an appetizer or as a condiment for meats and fish. I served it as a bruschetta topping one day and over pork chops the next (it was a match for pork’s natural sweetness), and I imagine it would be great over halibut or seared tuna, too. We’ve discussed my fondness for mezze and antipastos as the main event; caponata would go beautifully with those lamb meatballs and a slab of aged, hard cheese. Add a little salad and a glass of Nero D’Avola and you’ve got a good-looking meal on your hands.
I’ve adapted Lidia Bastianich’s recipe by scaling it down by half, and I’ve roasted the eggplant rather than fry it as Lidia does. (Roasting lightened the texture of the caponata up quite a bit.) Some recipes I’ve seen just throw all the ingredients together in a sauté, but Lidia’s method of layering the vegetable flavors and making a separate reduction really seemed to work, and didn’t take much longer.
Eggplant recipes will often call for salting the vegetable, which releases the eggplant’s bitter juices and keeps it from soaking up too much oil when it’s fried. A small, young eggplant that’s in season won’t be bitter, though, and since we won’t be frying, I’ve skipped the salting step altogether. (Hooray for little victories!)
Give yourself at least a day to let the flavors get acquainted in the fridge, and you can make the caponata four days or so before serving; it’s one of those great Italian dishes that just get better the longer they rest.
Summer’s winding down, my dears, and soon those summer harvests will be, too. With a dish of caponata and a hunk of baguette, you’ll be able to hang on to it just a little while longer. Oh, and if you do hear any yucks from your household before they try this, just rest easy knowing that your little darlings will soon be off to school. More for you!
adapted from Lidia Bastianich; makes about three cups
- 1 lb small, firm eggplant
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt, or more to taste
- 1/4 C red wine vinegar
- 1/4 C water
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1 medium onion, diced (about 1/2 lb)
- 1 C celery, diced (about 1 medium rib)
- 1/2 c cerignola olives (or any other jumbo green, brine-cured olive), pitted and finely chopped
- 2 Tbsp small capers, rinsed and drained
- 1/2 lb plum or heirloom tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 5 large basil leaves, minced
- 1/4 C olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
- optional: handful of toasted pine nuts and handful of currants (soak in water for 5 minutes to rehydrate)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a small saucepan, bring vinegar, water and sugar to a boil until reduced by half. Set aside.
Trim and dice eggplant, leaving skin on. Spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray. Quickly toss eggplant with 2 Tbsp olive oil. Roast for 10 minutes; turn eggplant over with a spatula (some may stick, which is fine) and roast for 5 more minutes.
Meanwhile, prep the other ingredients.
Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet. Cook onion and celery until wilted and lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Season with 1/8 tsp salt. Toss in olives and capers; scatter in the tomatoes. Season with 1/8 tsp salt and cook for 5 minutes. Spread eggplants and fold into vegetable mixture. Pour vinegar syrup over all, drizzle a little olive oil and cook for 10 minutes.
Add basil and adjust seasonings. Add pine nuts and currants, if using. Let cool to room temperature. If there’s time, let chill in the fridge overnight; the mixture benefits from allowing the flavors to merge. Serve cold or room temperature.
Caponata will last several days in the fridge.