…and somewhere, someone is eating caponata di melanzana.
Melanzana, of course, is the beautiful Italian name for the fruit that the French call “aubergine,” and which no one in America eats because it has the revolting name “eggplant.” Caponata is a relish, of sorts, that uses eggplant to carry the flavors of the other items in the mix.
It’s easy to make (except for one annoying part), delicious, and my version is good enough that it can make complete strangers want to hold you and gently sob tears of happiness.
Here’s how to make it.
Things you absolutely need
- Two big eggplants, or three smaller ones. Asian eggplant don’t work for this.
- Sicilian green olives. Nothing else works for this. No one knows why. Don’t use those canned black olives; even having a can in the house will set up psychic waves that might adversely affect the dish. Chop the green olives coarsely, because chopping olives finely is a pain (or, use a food processor)
- 2 small onions. Dice them.
- A few cloves of garlic. Smoosh them.
- Sugar. Set aside a tablespoon
- Some red wine vinegar. If you use balsamic, don’t use sugar. But I use red wine vinegar.
- Some celery, between 1 to 3 ribs. I find that less is more with the celery – usually use just 1 rib: you need some for flavor, but if there is too much the texture doesn’t mesh as well with the other items.
- Some form of tomatoes, for flavor. I just use a tablespoon or so of tomato paste, because I feel using tomatoes messes up the texture. If you do want to use tomatoes, use canned whole tomatoes and tear them apart with your hands when it’s time to add them. Don’t use fresh tomatoes – they won’t taste right.
- Salt, pepper.
- Lots of olive oil. If you use any other oil, you’re the Devil.
- A cast iron skillet. If you don’t own one by now, go buy one already. You need one.
Things you can add if you have them but you shouldn’t stress if you don’t have any in the house, in order of importance
- A few anchovies. If you put anchovies in your caponata, it will always taste about a hundred times better than your vegetarian neighbor’s caponata, and they’ll never understand why.
- A tablespoon or so of capers. This is where the name “caponata” comes from, but secretly you can get away without them.
- Currants, black or gold. Raisins hold too much moisture.
- Pine nuts. I never have any pignoli in the house, so I never put these in anymore.
The Annoying Part
Peel and cut the eggplant. It’s overkill to cut it any smaller than about one-inch chunks, since they’re going to shrink. Put the pieces in a colander and liberally pour some salt over them, mix, and let them sit for 20 minutes to half an hour. When that’s done (they should be profusely sweating), rinse the eggplant very well. Then reach into the colander with two hands and vigorously squeeze the excess moisture out of the eggplant.
This step, along with the anchovies, is the difference between your vegetarian neighbor’s caponata, which people just sort of politely taste, and my caponata, which results in shockingly inappropriate yet creative solicitations from dinner companions. By squeezing out the excess moisture, we’re ensuring that the eggplant are going to absorb more liquid from the other things in the skillet.
The Easy Part
While the eggplant are sweating in their salt rub, put onto medium heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in your cast iron skillet. Add finely chopped onion, garlic, and celery, and leave them on medium heat until the onions are turning translucent. Remove to a bowl.
Once the eggplant is ready, add more oil to the skillet, and add the following things in short order: the eggplant, the anchovies, and the tomato paste. Once it’s all up to temperature, add some vinegar (not a lot). I usually prepare 1/4 cup of vinegar and add little bits as needed for moisture, and then add more at the end if it needds it. As you cook, the eggplant will start shrinking. When the eggplant has shrunk enough that you have room in the skillet, re-add your celery/onion/garlic mixture.
Now cook it until it tastes good. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Stir in olives, and capers and currants if you have them.
At this point you need to make judgment calls based on taste. If you used anchovies, you shouldn’t actually need any additional salt. You’ll have to mix in more vinegar, and sugar, and taste after each addition until you reach the right balance. Trust your tongue and you’ll do fine.
It’s typical that this will taste a little too crisp right out of the skillet. To be truly transcendent, you want to stick it in the refrigerator for a day or two. This will give the flavors a chance to soften and blend. Eat it with fresh bread.
Enjoy your caponata, and be sure to write me and let me know what shockingly inappropriate yet creative solicitations you get from dinner companions as a result of making it.