The first time I encountered caponata I was a boy of about 6 or 7 and I saw a can in the supermarket I knew I just had to have. I already enjoyed some pretty unusual things for a boy my age: paté, caviar, pickled herring, smoked fish; not what the rest of the kids were eating… I couldn’t wait to get it home and try it. It was magnificent. Those were the days when most people used canned mushrooms because you couldn’t find fresh. Most people did not really know what to do with eggplant except bread it and fry it, which is good if not a bit greasy. So that is the way we ate caponata until we (my parents, me and my sister) had a most excellent ratatouille at a friend’s house served cold for a summer meal and it was enlightening. The eggplant was sweet and tender with no trace of bitterness seasoned perfectly with the other vegetables. It was that meal that enticed my mother, an already adventurous cook, to try her hand at cooking eggplant in many other ways. The first couple of attempts were not completely successful.
There are a lot tricks to cooking eggplant well, not the least of which is to cook them as soon after harvest as possible so they are not bitter. Many recipes call for cutting them then adding salt and letting the water drain off, but I find this to be a hassle and if you cut them right before they go into the pot they don’t oxidize. The salting method does drain off excess water but it also adds too much salt for me. So if you like to do it that way go ahead, but for this dish the added water from the eggplant keeps the dish from drying out but may require a bit more cooking to reduce the sauce to the right consistency.
Caponata is traditionally eaten at room temperature with pita or as a relish for meat or fowl. The complex flavors of salty, sweet, sour, and the aromas from the vegetable herbs and capers make this an incredible dish. It is the only way my son will eat eggplant. I am not sure what drew me to it as a youngster, but I have never stopped loving it and make it often. My recipe is very similar to and probably inspired by the recipe in The Joy of Cooking, but I was too young to know where the recipe came from. By all means try this recipe, I am sure you will not be disappointed.
- 1 medium eggplant, diced, skin on
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 celery ribs, sliced
- 1 -15 oz can stewed tomatoes
- 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 15 calamata olives
- 15 small pitted green olives, no pimento
- 2 Tbsp small capers, drained
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp kosher salt or to taste (sometimes an eggplant needs more salt)
- ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp herbs de Provence
Heat a saucepan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Sauté the onions and garlic until they are translucent. Add the celery and sauté until the moisture starts to come out of the celery. Add the eggplant and stir to combine and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the stewed tomatoes, red wine vinegar, and the tomato paste. Lower the heat to a simmer, and partially cover the pan until the eggplant is soft but still intact. Add the olives, capers, salt, black pepper and the herbs. Heat through. Taste to adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if needed. Serve hot or refrigerate to serve cold.