Friday, 18 November 2011

Caponata or How I Beat the Eggplanspiracy

I mentioned it before: I love eggplants. It's a gorgeous, versatile veg with which one can cook an infinite number of scrumptious dishes. Their odd shape and color seems to intimidate a lot of people, but I am faithful to their deliciousness, and I always look forward to trying a new way to cook them.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the victim of some Machiavellian eggplant conspiracy: when I find a recipe with eggplants and get all excited about it, I can't find any of the damn veggies in any of the grocery stores in town! And of course, when the last thing I think about is cooking with eggplants... they. Are. Everywhere. In massive quantities. Oh, the irony. I can't find where this conspiracy stems from or why I am being targeted; please let me know if you are also a victim of this horrible plot. Maybe we can fight it together, like eggplant-vigilantes.

My strategy, to beat the eggplanspiracy, was to stack up a pile of recipes involving eggplants and to buy the purple beauties every time I found some. That way, I am never out of ideas on how to prepare those cuties. Ha!

This week, I bought a plump eggplant, and decided to make caponata, as a side dish to some pasta (for those who liked the tomato-basil spaghetti, these two recipes go oh so well together; I urge you to try it!). Caponata is an Italian antipasto (or entrĂ©e); some people call it a stew, but I find it's more like a chunky chutney. It's full of all the stuff that make Italian food awesome: tomatoes, olives, onions, olive oil, garlic, oregano… A whole bunch of stuff I love to eat, all thrown in the same pan and cooked together. Awe-some.

It's also pretty versatile, being good either hot from the pot or cold. I like it on a nice piece of bread as a snack, or next to my pasta. Perfection on a plate. If you have leftovers and you want a healthy and easy lunch (or if you are trying to avoid O.D.-ing on pasta), eat it with some quinoa; it's a little hippie-ish, but super tasty and it makes a complete meal if you have a lovely yogurt for dessert.

This recipe is a re-working on the one I found in "Jamie's Italy", by Mr. Oliver. I like to keep my caponata simple, but if you feel inspired to add more Mediterranean-cuisine inspired stuff in there, go right ahead. My advice is to make a basic one once, so you get an idea of the flavors and textures, and then get a bit more experimental. Artichoke hearts, anchovies (if you're so inclined) and capers all fit in nicely with the other ingredients. Add them at the same time as the olives.

1 large eggplant, cut into large chunks
1 heaping tablespoon oregano
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 red onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and stems chopped
1 large handful green olives, pitted
1 large handful Kalamata olives, pitted
2-3 tablespoons herb vinegar (or a combination of red and while wine vinegar)
3 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons slivered almonds (optional)
1 handful pinenuts (optional)

Put the eggplants chunks in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let degorge for 20 to 30 minutes, rinse and drain. Heat up a bit of olive oil in a large pan. Add the eggplants and oregano, a bit of salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss around to coat the eggplants with oil; cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the eggplants are getting golden, add the onion, garlic, parsley stem and continue cooking for a few minutes. Throw in the olives and drizzle with a bit of herbal vinegar. When it has evaporated, add the tomatoes and simmer for 15 minutes, or until everything is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Sprinkle with the parsley leaves, almonds and pinenuts, and serve hot or cold.

I used black olives instead of green ones, but I think a mix of both is my favorite way to go. If out of herbal vinegar, fear not! A bit of red or white wine vinegar does the trick.

As you see, there is nothing very complicated about this recipe. I am an advocate of sweating your eggplant before you start cooking, as it will absorb more flavor and less oil that way (and therefore, won't get mushy and nasty-looking). For those who've never done it, simply put your cubed eggplant in a colander, sprinkle with salt (don't freak out, you're going to rinse it off), toss the cubes around and let it sit there for 20 to 30 minutes. You'll notice the eggplant will degorge, i.e. the water will come out. It actually looks like little sweat beads. Then, simply rinse the contents of your colander under cold water, and pat them dry with a paper towel. It was a mandatory step back in the days before eggplants were cultivated to have fewer seeds (which can make them bitter). I still like to do it, but it does add half an hour to your prep time, so if you are in a rush or starving, skip this step without feeling too guilty about it. It won't spoil the dish if you eggplants don't sweat.

Carnivores rejoice, it also makes a great side to grilled and roast meat, especially lamb and beef (or delicious fish, as pictured). A nice, robust red wine is the perfect match for this, as it's a fairly rustic fare. My favorite is Dogajolo. Salute!

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