I discovered my love for eggplant caponata not in a sun drenched Sicilian village but in a small central Illinois town. Largely settled by Italian immigrants, Benld kitchens hold the secrets of astonishing dishes with recipes passed through generations. My friend Gilah’s kitchen was no exception with her simmering pots of sauce, flour-dusted clothes of fresh pasta and wonderful aromas of baking pastries.
Arriving at Gilah’s home in the summer was always a time of marvelous agricultural delight. On one particular day, as I rounded the side of the house, my first indication it was going to be a culinary adventure was the sight of Gilah and her husband, Lanz, surveying a picnic table blanketed with freshly picked vegetables. Baskets of gloriously red tomatoes, peppers of many colors, crisp cucumbers, ears of newly shucked sweet corn, a plentitude of various sized zucchini and, finally, Gilah’s beloved eggplant foretold a day of creating fascinating Italian dishes.
Upon seeing me approach, Lanz, smiled broadly and exclaimed, “Look what my garden provided for Gilah today! A week’s worth of ingredients! But don’t you worry, I saved the best for you.” With that, he picked up two smaller baskets from the ground and held them out for me to behold. I was stunned by the array of luscious vegetables in one basket and a bit pensive about all of the eggplant in the other basket.
To this point, my experience with eggplant was battered and fried along with the occasional eggplant Parmesan. One can eat only so much eggplant when the limits of preparation stay within two methods. Laughing at my apprehensive, Gilah grasped the handle of her eggplant basket and started towards the door, “Come along. I will show you my world of eggplant today.”
Within Gilah’s kitchen was an array of preparations of numerous dishes in varying stages. It was from Gilah I learned the method of preparing many foundation flavor ingredients simultaneously. Sauces, infused oils, infused vinegars, flavored syrups, relishes, chutneys, cured meats and herbed butters all provided the basis for many of her fabulous dishes. Using these allowed her to create splendid meals within a relatively short time frame.
On these days, many times it was the first step in my cooking lesson with Gilah that I enjoyed the most. A cup of strong Italian coffee topped with smooth fresh cream was poured for the both of us and then began a discussion of the dish for the day. This always included a sampling, previously prepared by Gilah, of what would be the final dish. On this particular day, in the center of the table lay slices of fresh bread and a bowl of some type of vegetable mix or relish.
There was a process to this tasting. I was to close my eyes and first smell what I was about to eat. While the eyes provide the inaugural taste of a dish, Gilah believed the aroma of food was the best harbinger of what was to come. If there was not an appealing smell to create anticipation, the person was already adverse to the final taste.
With eyes still closed, the second step was to take a small bite and simply allow the food to lie on the tongue for just a few moments. I was always fascinated at the flavor complexity I would sense even within the simplest dishes by allowing my taste buds to experience all of the subtle ingredients.
The final stage in this tasting process was to slowly chew the food and determine the texture not only of the bite as a whole but also of the individual ingredients. I was to determine if and how I believed the ingredients’ textures influenced each other. It developed an awareness of the importance in preparation methods of each ingredient.
Once this was complete, we would discuss what I had experienced. I would attempt to identify all of the ingredients including the seasonings; provide what I believed were the various levels of preparation; and how I would change the dish in any way to make it my own.
On this particular day as I identified the ingredients, I could name all but one. There were briny round capers, salty sliced green olives, definitely the acidic flavor of vinegar, the juicy sweetness of tomatoes, the distinct bite of cooked onions and then a mystery ingredient. It had the softness of cooked zucchini but held firmly in its shape. When I learned the ingredient was indeed eggplant and I was experiencing caponata, I felt I had been duped but in a good way.
We spent the day exploring eggplant through various preparation and cooking methods. The most memorable, though, was learning to blend the wonderful flavors of the individual ingredients in caponata to create a symphony of tastes while still retaining their own distinct shape and texture. It was meant to be a foundation flavor but not a sauce of indistinguishable ingredients.
I learned much from Gilah that summer but the process of sensory cooking has provided me the ability to deconstruct dishes and reconstruct them in my kitchen to make them my own. If you should ever see me in a restaurant with closed eyes while tasting my food, simply know I am learning about a new dish and returning to a kitchen in the small town of Benld to share a cup of coffee with Gilah.
This is a basic recipe for caponata as influenced by Gilah’s lesson in sensory cooking. It can be personalized by the addition of various herbs and other ingredients such as fennel, basil, oregano, pine nuts, walnuts, raisins or any number of items.
Here the eggplant retains the peel, but may also be prepared without the skin as based on personal preference. Be sure to allow the salted eggplant to drain for at least an hour and pat dry with paper towels removing as much of its moisture as possible prior to frying or the result will be an unsatisfactory soft mush once combined at the end. Since the eggplant is salted in this process, the addition of more salt should be reserved until the end if necessary.
While some versions of caponata requires the boiling of the capers, olives and celery prior to adding to the cooked tomatoes, here the capers and olives are simply rinsed well. The rinse removes the saltiness but retains the texture and shape of the capers and olives. By adding the celery with the tomatoes, there is ample time for it to soften but still retain its texture.
Take care when cooking the tomatoes. They should be soften but not completely lose their shape. The goal is to have a final dish where there is a bit of sauce or juice to bring the ingredients together but to also have the ability to visually see each ingredient distinctly.
As for the vinegar, again, it is personal preference. Here a red wine vinegar is used but can easily be replaced with white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. There will be a distinct flavor variation with each. Balsamic vinegar is too over powering a flavor to use alone in this recipe. If desiring to gain the flavor, simply replace 1-2 teaspoons of the vinegar with the Balsamic and use milder vinegar for the remaining. Herb infused vinegars work equally well.
The ratio of vinegar and sugar is also based on personal preference. Increase the vinegar if a stronger “pickled” flavor is desired. Increase the sugar if a sweeter caponata is desire.
Caponata can be served at room temperature or chilled along side fresh bread as a simple appetizer. Acting as a foundation flavor, it can be serve as a topping on grilled fish, sliced fresh vegetables or sliced cooked potatoes.
1 eggplant, about 1½ – 2 pounds
1 t kosher salt
3 ¼ c basil infused olive oil such as
¼ c capers, rinsed
6 oz. green olives, rinsed, pitted and roughly chopped
¾ c chopped red onion
6 roma tomatoes
¾ c celery, chopped small
1 T tomato paste
½ c red wine vinegar
Remove both ends of the eggplant. Slice crosswise into 1/2 inch slices. Sprinkle both sides with the salt. Lay in the bottom and sides of a strainer and place either in the sink or over a large bowl. Allow to rest for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Remove from strainer and place on paper towels, patting to remove any surface moisture.
Fill a medium sauce pan half way with water. Bring to a boil. Turn heat to low. Fill a medium bowl with ice water. Place the tomatoes in the hot water for 2 minute. Remove and immediately place in the bowl of ice water. Once cool enough to handle, peel and deseed tomatoes.
Place tomatoes on a cutting board and dice into medium chunks. Set aside.
Place 1/4 cup olive oil in heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add chopped onion. Sauté until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.
Turn heat to medium. Add the tomatoes and celery. Cook for 7-10 minutes to soften and juice the tomatoes. Add the tomato paste, vinegar and sugar. Cook an additional 7-10 minutes until most of the moisture has cooked away but the tomatoes still retain some firmness.
While the tomatoes are cooking, cut the eggplant slices in to large dices.
Heat 3 cups of olive oil in a large sauce pan over high heat until a test piece of eggplant creates bubbles when dropped in, about 5-7 minutes. Cooking in batches, add about a third of the eggplant dices. Do not over crowd. Cook for about 5 minutes, turning occasionally, until all sides are golden brown.
Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
Add capers and olives to the tomatoes. Stir gently to completely mix.
Gently stir in the eggplant. Spoon into a serving bowl or jars.
Serve immediately with fresh bread or store in covered containers in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.