Eggplant, Sicilian-style

Caponata, a cooked salad with interesting ingredients

Caponata is one of my favorite ways to use the abundance of eggplant that comes out of my garden each year, and works especially well with the little Fairytale eggplants often seen at farmers markets. This tangy cooked salad is found throughout Sicily and much of Italy, with as many variations as there are grandmas. It can be used as a condiment, an antipasto served on crostini, a filling for a killer sandwich or even a pasta sauce. Caponata's unique ingredient list is a nod to Sicily's history as a bountiful island caught in the crossroads of global conquest. Cacao was brought to Europe by the conquistadors, was kept secret from the rest of Europe for more than a century and was regarded as liquid gold by the Spanish nobility. While Sicily was under Spanish rule, ingredients like cocoa and cinnamon made their way into Sicilian cuisine, adding richness and depth to meat dishes such as braised fowl or roast pork, as well as sweeter vegetables like eggplant. Similar to ratatouille but brighter and more intense, caponata freezes well and makes for a surprising addition to a winter cheeseboard.

Eggplant is a celebrated ingredient throughout much of the world, showing up in dishes throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean coast. For years most Americans were familiar only with standard issue Italian varieties like the Black Beauty eggplants that my great-grandfather grew on his truck farm decades ago. Thanks to curious chefs, enterprising farmers and dedicated seed savers, folks are now able to find an increasingly varied selection at local farms and markets. Ranging in color from white to jet black to neon purple and green to white to orange-red, eggplant is low in calories, rich in fiber and nutrients and can be prepared in a myriad of ways.

Although typically regarded as a vegetable in culinary terms, the eggplants that we eat today are technically a berry, domesticated in Asia centuries ago from wild nightshade. Many people seem to have strong feelings about eggplant, and those who object to it often cite bitterness and/or greasiness. For many their relationship with this cosmopolitan fruit ended with their first bite of a thoughtlessly prepared eggplant Parmesan, teeth tearing through tough, bitter skin and oil dripping out of each bite. Eggplant does have an incredible ability to soak up oil like a sponge, so if not prepared mindfully it's easy to end up with an unbalanced dish.

The skin on eggplant is completely edible and does not need to be removed. Due to its relationship to the often toxic nightshade family, generations of cooks were advised to peel eggplant before preparing, as this was thought to remove unhealthy compounds in the skin (much like you would avoid eating green potato skin, also a member of the nightshade family). Not only is the skin perfectly safe to eat, it's filled with fiber and powerful antioxidants. If you find yourself with an older eggplant with tough skin (which includes most out-of-season eggplant bought in supermarkets) then you many want to peel it. The easiest way to make sure you don't end up with a tough, bitter eggplant is to only buy them when they're fresh and in season. Look for firm young fruits with bright, shiny skin. Ideally, eggplant should be stored at room temperature and used within a couple of days. It will keep for a week in the fridge, wrapped in a paper towel in a zip-close bag, but too long in the fridge will compromise flavor and texture.

Caponata

½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, cut in ½-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 cup sliced celery
2 medium eggplant, cut into ½-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
¼ cup currants or raisins (regular or golden)
½ tsp to 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes, to taste (I like mine pretty hot.)
1 heaping teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups sliced cherry tomatoes (diced regular tomatoes are fine too)
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 spring fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup toasted pine nuts or almonds

Heat the olive oil in a large non-reactive skillet over medium high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the onion, garlic, celery and eggplant. Season with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently until the vegetables begin to soften, about five minutes. Add the currants or raisins, red pepper flakes, cocoa powder, cinnamon and stir to combine. Add the sliced cherry tomatoes, sugar, thyme and capers. Continue to cook until the tomatoes begin to release their juices and become saucy. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and sugar as needed. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature before finishing with the chopped parsley and nuts. The flavor of caponata improves overnight in the fridge and it will keep in the fridge for up to a week. If planning to make ahead and freeze, leave out the nuts and add them after thawing.

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