Eggplant And Fig Caponata (GF, V)
Caponata is something I’ve been seeing on so many blogs over the past year or so but I’ve never attempted to even looking too deeply into a recipe, let alone try making it. The reason for this is that I really do not like eggplant/ aubergine.
As a child it was one of the many vegetables that just could not bring myself to eat, though now I do like it cooked in a couple of ways but its one vegetable I would never consciously order if I ate out. My husband, on the other hand, quite likes eggplant and he’s quite an expert at cooking it up into a tasty stir-fry.
Our daughter seems to have taken after me for now, and will not touch an eggplant with the proverbial 10-foot pole! So why am I suddenly cooking a vegetable I don’t like too much?
The caponata was Alessio’s idea we were talking about how it would be fun to explore each others’ traditions by trying out dishes which are typical of our respective cuisines.
We started with Alessio and he suggested caponata, which is typical of Sicily, where he comes from. Put it down to Mario Puzo’s Godfather and movies of that genre, but for a long time (these are my school/ early college days I’m talking about) if someone played a word association game with me and said “Sicily”, I would have said “Mafia” which isn't really fair to the country as a whole but there you have it!
Luckily that was way back, and now Sicily means much more including Italian style food which we enjoy. So back to the “Caponata”. I had a vague memory of reading somewhere that a caponata was a Sicilian eggplant salad. Since I knew next to nothing about it, I had to do a bit of reading to figure out exactly what it was.
Where better to start from than Alessio himself? His advice was, and I quote him on some of it, “For the caponata, the key ingredient is more the celery along with capers and olives. The sweet and sour flavour is at its base too. Considering that the dish is of arabic origins, including eggplants will keep it in its traditional cuisine comfort zone.”
Fresh celery is not always available here and it wasn’t surprising I couldn’t find it at the market the day I wanted it! I did have some dried celery which I used, but I suspect the frsh stuff would make all the difference. We find olives a bit of an acquired taste, and unfortunately haven’t acquired the taste for them so far!! I have also never seen a caper before!!!
I understand green peppercorns in brine are the closest substitute, but wouldn’t you know that my stock of this just got finished a couple of months back. So I shall be making my caponata without those key ingredients. Luckily, we do get eggplant/ aubergine all the year round, though different varieties in different seasons.
After much reading, I understand the caponata is considered to be Sicilian in origin, though many variations of it can be found right across Italy. Caponata is primarily made of fried/ sautéed (or baked) and chopped eggplant cooked with onion, tomato, garlic, vinegar, celery, sugar and pine nuts. Essentially a vegetarian dish, other ingredients are also sometimes added including seafood.
Caponata is most popularly served as antipasto or appetizers on crostini or twice baked rusks. It can also be served as a side or main dish and either warm or cold.
Much thought later and a bit restricted by the ingredients I had on hand, I found two recipes which looked like they might work for me. I think the best variety of eggpant to use would be the large purple kind which has very little seeds in it, the kind we use to make baingan bhartha in India.
It will be another month or two before this variety appears in the markets here, so I used the small variety of purple eggplant (they type we stuff with spices and cook) that’s available right now. I have seen many recipes mentioning slating the eggplants and pressing out the juice to remove the “bitterness”. I have never found any of the eggplant varieties in India to be bitter, so I didn’t do this.
I also noticed that the eggplant was treated differently in various recipes. Some pan-fried the eggplant, others used just as it was while some either roasted or baked it before making the caponata. Roasting eggplant is something we do in many Indian dishes and that lends a wonderfully smoky flavour but I thought I would try baking the eggplant here. It also meant I could cut down on the oil.
My less than authentic “Eggplant And Fig Caponata” which is an adaptation of Mario Batalli's recipe) and a little lighter on the oil, is given below. The recipe I used involves making a tomato sauce first, which is then used to make the caponata. This may seem a more involved procedure, but I thought the caponata was worth it. There are easier and less time consuming recipes for caponata, which you might prefer.
I would take the amounts of most of the ingredients listed for this recipe as indicative rather than absolute. What I mean by that is that feel free to adjust the amounts to suit your taste, because there’s not much point in making something no one will eat!
For the tomato sauce:
For the caponata:
- First make the tomato sauce -Run the chopped onion and tomato in the blender to a chunky consistency. Do not purée the mixture, but blend till very small chunks are visible. This will give the caponata a better texture.
- Heat the oil in a pan, add the garlic paste and sauté for a minute. Add the chunky onion-tomato mixture, grated carrot and salt. Cook till the raw smell of onion disappears and everything is well cooked and the consistency of a very thick sauce. This should take about 8 to10 minutes.
- Keep aside. You will not need all the tomato sauce for the caponata. You can refrigerate the rest for upto a week and it’ll stay longer in the freezer.
- Now make the caponata - First pre-heat your oven to 230C (450F). Cut off the stalk on the eggplant and cut each one into half lengthwise. Place them, cut side down on a greased baking tray and lightly coat the eggplant halves with oil.
- Bake them for about 20 to 25 minutes till the skins turn brown (not burnt) in colour. Take them out and let them cool. Peel the skins off and chop the eggplant into 1/2" cubes.
- Heat the remaining olive oil in a pan. Add the onions and sauté for a couple of minutes, till they become a little soft. Add the pine nuts, figs, chilli flakes and cook for about 5 minutes, on low to medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- Now add the chopped eggplant, brown sugar, the tomato sauce (from above), balsamic vinegar and salt. Cook this for another 5 minutes or so on medium heat till done. Add the dried celery and the other herbs. Mix well and take it off the heat.
- Lightly drizzle baguette or garlic bread slices with olive oil and toast or grill them till golden brown. Top with the caponata and serve.
I have to thank Al for picking a vegetarian dish this time because it meant I didn’t have to spend too much time on looking for substitutes. I also have to thank him for introducing me to this delightful way of cooking eggplant.
This eggplant caponata is really a nice balance of flavours and textures. I found Mario Batalli’s tomato sauce interesting where the carrot lends a slight sweetness. The figs and balsamic vinegar are probably not traditional ingredients but add to the sweet and sour balance of the caponata.
I see some resemblance here, in the taste, to a north Indian style baingan subzi (or eggplant curry) and this probably because of the Arabic influence in this dish is somewhat similar to the Mughal/ Persian influences on north Indian cooking. I can even see this eggplant caponata as a wonderful topping for pizza. I know eggplant is used by many as topping on pizza, but I have never gone that way so far.
Add the crunch of the crostini to the meltingly soft, slightly spicy, sweet and sour caponata and you have a wonderful appetizer. My daughter who is a confirmed eggplant hater actually told me, “I don’t mind eating eggplant if it is cooked like this”! I rest my case.
The four of us (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I), and anyone else who would like to join us in our food adventures hope to keep exploring a new dish/ style of cooking/ cuisine every month, for as long as we can. Each of us will share our recipes and our experiences with them on our blogs.
This month's Caponata recipes:
Alessio: Sicily, Sweet And Sour
Veena: Sicilian Caponata
Madhuli: Yotam Ottolenghi's Caponata