Eggplant caponata made from tender eggplant, sweet roasted peppers and briny capers.
Armed with my new mandate to cook more western vegetarian food, I made my way to the grocery store today and wandered the aisles of lack-luster hothouse produce, hoping that something would jump out at me. Today, my inspiration came from a pile of shiny deep purple eggplants that carried with them a glimmer of summer (somewhere else in the world). As I was adding it to my basket I remembered a red bell pepper nearing the end of its life in the bottom of my veggie drawer as well as my second batch of dough (from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day) just waiting to be turned into a beautiful Boule.
"Something with eggplant and red bell peppers that I could eat with bread..." I thought... Caponata!
Caponata is one of those dishes that everyone has their own recipe for, but the general consensus is that it is a sweet and sour cooked eggplant dish which originated in Sicily. Countries bordering the Mediterranean all have similar dishes, but I really love the intensity of flavour and the versatility of Caponata. It's like all the tastes of a late summer on the Mediterranean concentrated into something that you can spread on bread, put in a sandwich, or even toss with pasta.
To get the intense smokey flavour I was craving, I char grilled the bell peppers before peeling them. Then I salted my eggplant, which does a couple of things. First, it gets rid of the excess water, which prevents your finished dish from getting watery. Secondly, it collapses the cell membranes in the spongy eggplant preventing it from absorbing too much oil and getting greasy. The third thing is that it's supposed to reduce the bitterness in eggplant, but honestly with the modern varieties we get around here, bitterness has never been an issue for me.
While the onions get sauteed in olive oil to sweeten them, I like to add the garlic at the very end to give the finished Caponata an edge that it would loose if the garlic were cooked.
As with any simple dish, the quality of the key ingredients is important. In this case, make sure you use fresh eggplant, identifiable by a green stem and smooth shiny skin that springs back when gently pressed. This dish also uses a lot of olive oil, so make sure you get one with a flavour you like. Lastly, there are a lot of "fake" balsamic vinegars out there and while I'm not telling you to fly to Modena to pick up a real bottle, you should make sure it doesn't have additives like sugar or corn syrup. I love the concentrated flavour of a properly aged balsamic vinegar and while it's not cheap, Whole Foods carries a 12 year aged one from Modena that's fantastic.
The result? Delicious! silky smooth eggplant, mildly sweet, tart, full of smoky flavour and loaded with umami. The garlic adds just the right amount of spicy punch without overwhelming and the parsley brings a hint of freshness to an otherwise rich and full-bodied dish. If you want to brighten it even more, you can add a splash of lemon juice just before serving.
I baked a fresh boule to spread the Caponata on and also served it with some some cheese and butter fried flounder roe (more on this tomorrow)
- Put the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with 1 Tbs kosher salt. Toss to coat and leave it over a bowl for an hour.
- Grill or broil the bell pepper until the skin is charred then wrap in foil until cool. Trapping the steam like this makes it much easier to remove the skins. When they are cool, peel the pepper and remove any excessively charred bits. Slice into thin short strips.
- When the eggplant is done salting, rinse in a bowl of cold water to remove excess salt. Squeeze the eggplant with your hands to wring out as much moisture as you can.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat and saute the onions until until they are translucent and just start turning brown around the edges. Add the eggplant, bell peppers and thyme. Salt and pepper to taste stirring until the eggplant is very soft and starts to loose its shape.
- Add the balsamic vinegar and capers and stir until there is no liquid left. Take off the heat and add the garlic and parsley. You can serve this immediately with some crusty bread, but it tastes even better the next day.