Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been in the mood for caponata. It may have something to do with the cold temps and rain and wind and rain. Although that doesn’t make good sense because this spread is usually not eaten hot. No warming-of-the-bones-association here. Maybe I’m just longing for home and all the comforts that come with it. After all, the only caponata I’ve ever eaten aside from my own is Josie Manca’s. I’ve told you about Josie. She, her brother and her sister were dear friends of my grandmother’s and a big part of our family. None of the three Mancas ever married and they lived their entire lives together in Mid-City where they graciously hosted many wonderful Mardi Gras parade parties and made everyone feel special. Josie had many wonderful traits. She was wise and nurturing and could cook like nobody’s business, especially Creole-Italian food. When the last of the three siblings passed away, I was fortunate enough to receive a few of her trusty cookbooks. Many of the pages were splattered and stained just like my collection. But I’m thankful for that because those imperfections helped me piece together a few of her specialties. Unfortunately, none of those books included any reference to caponata. I was hoping I’d find something even remotely similar to help me figure out how Josie made hers. I do know though, from talking to my mom, that her caponata was raisin-less and not too sweet.
If you’ve never heard of caponata, it’s a traditional Italian eggplant spread or condiment that’s usually served at room temperature with crackers or toasted bread slices. Sometimes you’ll find the mixture on antipasto platters. It’s also delicious tossed with pasta or spooned over grilled meat, chicken or seafood. Caponata is similar to a French ratatouille yet smoother (texture-wise) and sassier. That sassiness comes from sweet and sour elements that separate this dish from other Mediterranean vegetable stews. It’s what’s referred to as “agrodolce.” The sourness (“agro”) comes from vinegar (either red, white or balsamic) and the sweet (“dolce”) comes from sugar (and in some instances, raisins). All the flavors meld together (especially if left to sit in the fridge overnight) to produce a vibrant and well-balanced dish. I add a little more depth to the traditional caponata by first roasting the eggplant. And, unlike Josie, I do add raisins–I love the texture. I also avoid celery, even though it’s popular in many caponata recipes.
This is one of the few finger foods that, in my opinion, doesn’t hang well with beer. Clearly, red wine is a better choice. I could probably handle a glass or two of something fun like a Chianti or a Chilean red, but I don’t have any labels to share. You know red wine is really not my thing. If I’m not too full when I’m done with my caponata and vino, I plan on cracking open a porter. It’s a good companion on a cold night. Right now I’m eyeing a Smuttynose Robust Porter. Should be the perfect nightcap!
Until next week …
2 large eggplants
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups crushed canned tomatoes, with juice
1/2 cup oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, processed until smooth
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 cup green olives in brine, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup capers, drained
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (or 2 teaspoon dried basil leaves)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place whole eggplants on a baking sheet or shallow baking dish lined with parchment paper. Pierce eggplants all over with a fork. Roast until tender and the skin begins to shrivel, about 25-30 minutes. Remove from oven; let cool. Once eggplants are cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise and scoop flesh onto a chopping board; finely chop and set aside. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender, 5-7 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and next 11 ingredients (through salt and black pepper). Cook, stirring often, until thickened, 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in pine nuts and basil. Let cool to room temperature. Serve with pita chips or toasted French bread slices. Makes 8-10 appetizer servings.