As my Facebook news feed fills with back to school photos and the days grow shorter and cooler, it feels as though summer is coming to a close. Luckily on the food front, we still have at least another month of delicious summer produce before we dive head first into butternut squash and root vegetable season. I’m celebrating this lovely time of year by wearing sundresses with cardigans (I’ve gotta get a bit more mileage out of my dresses before they get packed away for then next 6-8 months!) and by making one of my favorite Sicilian recipes: eggplant caponata – a stewed vegetable dish that can be served with everything from crostini to grilled meats. Caponata is extremely flavorful – Sicilians describe it as “agrodolce” (sweet and sour) but it’s also quite hearty and rich with notes of bitterness, salt and umami. The vibrant, contrasting flavors (typical of Sicilian cooking) make it satisfying and a delight to eat. Eggplants are at their peak from July through October, so now is the perfect time to try out this delicious and versatile dish! You may find that is becomes a mainstay.
Eggplant in Sicily
Originally introduced to Sicily by the Arabs in the Middle Ages when the island was under Byzantine and Muslim rule, eggplant (aubergine here in England, melanzana in Italy) is a crucial part of Sicilian cuisine. You’ll find them in nearly every market, restaurant and home kitchen on the island. Sicilians refer to eggplant as the “meat of the earth” and treat it as such – grilling, frying or baking it as though it were indeed a piece of pork or chicken.
Ingredients in Eggplant Caponata
Caponata often incorporates whatever vegetables one has on hand. The only mainstays are eggplant, tomato in some form, some type of allium (anything in the garlic/onion family) and celery – beyond that, you can get creative! Throw in some zucchini, fresh tomato, or carrots – whatever you have in your crisper drawer. My recipe calls for bell pepper but you can definitely omit or substitute based on your preferences. Red onions and garlic were my alliums of choice but feel free to use scallions, shallots, Vidalias or any onion that strikes your fancy. I like to use tomato paste because you can cook it down to get a nice caramelized flavor, but most Sicilians would use a fresh tomato sauce or passata (tomato purée) – again, it’s up to you! I usually use small Italian eggplants but if you find a fun heirloom variety at the farmers market, go for it. Caponata always incorporates acid and sugar in some form – I used red wine vinegar and sugar, but this is, of course, flexible as well! Cider vinegar and honey, sherry vinegar and maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and brown sugar – use what suits you. Many recipes, including mine, call for capers, but if you aren’t a fan or can’t find them, you could substitute something else briny/salty such as olives or even anchovies. Dried fruit and nuts provide textural contrast in Caponata. I used pine nuts and raisins, but as you’ve probably guessed, substitutions are welcome. Cranberries and slivered almonds could be fun! It’s always nice to finish a rich, stewed dish like this with some fresh herbs. I used purple basil and parsley but mint would be lovely as well. One of the things that makes caponata so wonderful is that it’s endlessly riffable – you could make it 10 different times with 10 different, delicious results!
How to Make Eggplant Caponata
The most time consuming and arduous part of making caponata is frying the eggplant. Some recipes call to deep fry the eggplant, but I find that pan frying works just as well as long as you don’t over crowd the pan. Just work in batches and you’ll be good to go! Then it’s simply a matter of caramelizing your allium, adding your other vegetables and creating a sauce with your tomato paste/sauce, vinegar, and sugar. Add the eggplant back in along with the dried fruit and capers (or your substitute) cook for another 5 minutes or so. This is one of those dishes that gets better as it sits, so consider putting it in the fridge overnight so that flavors can meld together. Stir in your fresh herbs and toasted nuts right before you’re ready to serve.
What to Serve Eggplant Caponata With
Caponata is delicious served as a spread alongside toasted bread, or you can pre assemble bruschetta. For a little extra richness, consider spreading ricotta cheese on your crostini before adding the caponata. You can also serve caponata alongside meat, such as roast chicken, pork chops, or grilled lamb. I find it particularly good with fish – slow roast a large fillet of halibut or arctic char, break it into pieces on a large serving platter, and spoon the caponata over top for an easy but show stopping main course. You could also use your caponata as a pasta sauce – boil your pasta while you gently reheat the caponata in a large skillet. Add the pasta directly to the caponata along with some pasta water and toss over medium heat until the pasta is lightly coated in sauce. You could even serve it over scrambled eggs for a Sicilian inspired brunch! The possibilities are endless.
Recipe for Eggplant Caponata
½ - ¾ cup vegetable oil, for frying (or olive oil)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound eggplant, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 medium red onion, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
4 large garlic cloved, minced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
½ cup raisins
2 tablespoons capers
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped basil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a large, heavy bottomed skillet, heat ½ inch of vegetable oil (or olive oil). Working in batches, fry the eggplant in the oil, stirring occasionally until it is browned on all sides. When the eggplant is finished cooking remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon and on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Salt the fried eggplant immediately. Add more oil to the pan between batches so that you are always starting with about ½ an inch of oil in the pan. Note that the eggplant may soak up all the oil when you first add it to the pan, but it will release it as it begins to brown.
Once you’ve finished frying the eggplant, pour out any remaining frying oil and reserve for another use. Heat the pan over medium heat and add the olive oil and onions. Cook, stirring frequently until the onions just begin to take on color. Add the celery, bell pepper, and garlic and cook for another 3-5 minutes, until the vegetables are slightly softened and aromatic. Add the tomato paste and cook until it begins to darken in color and stick to the bottom of the pan. Deglaze with the vinegar, then stir in sugar, raisins, and capers. Allow the mixture to come to a boil, then stir in the eggplant. Cook at a simmer for 3-4 minutes, stirring gently to avoid crushing the eggplant. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and transfer to a serving dish to cool.
Stir in toasted nuts and herbs before serving.
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Chelsea is one third of the Euro Travel Coach team (and is the daughter of the other two thirds of the team, Greg and Betsy). She has a passion for food and wine and has a background in hospitality. She attended Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and interned with two of New York City's best restaurant groups while she was in school. After graduation she worked at the number one wine auction house in the United States, Chicago's Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. There, she organized various wine centric events for HDH's most valuable clients. She and her husband moved to Copenhagen, Denmark in 2016 and then to Bristol, UK in 2018 and have traveled extensively during their time living in Europe. Her expertise in food and wine and her experience living abroad helps her to find amazing accommodations, delicious restaurants, and unique experiences for Euro Travel Coach clients.
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