Sicilian Eggplant Caponata

I've learned that as far as flavor combinations and ingredient pairings go, there really are no rules. While there are the tamer, more "obvious" pairings -- apple and cinnamon, chocolate and strawberry, and tomato and basil, for example -- let's not forget peanut butter and banana, pear and gorgonzola, balsamic vinegar and vanilla ice cream, or bacon and maple syrup, all unexpected ingredient combos that somehow work together beautifully.

So while a dish that puts together olives, capers, raisins, vinegar, eggplant, tomato, celery, and pine nuts may seem odd, trust me on this one -- all those seemingly random ingredients mix and meld together perfectly to make Sicilian eggplant caponata, one of the tastiest, most flavorful dishes to ever come out of my kitchen. This recipe comes from my fellow blogger Rosemarie, an Australian with Italian roots who lives in Turin (her blog is www.turinmamma.com, do check it out!) I saw she had shared this recipe on www.italymagazine.com and had one of those culinary "aha!" moments, deciding I needed to make it right away and that it was exactly the recipe I had been looking for to make use of summer eggplant (remember that SUMMER INGREDIENTS TO COOK WITH list?)

So let me explain! Here we have a whole pot of flavors: briny olives, sweet sultanas, tangy vinegar, mild eggplant, mellow celery, salty capers, and toasty pine nuts, all of which complement each other perfectly, each ingredient playing their part on Team Caponata: the delicate flavor of the eggplant and celery tempers the bite of the capers and olives, which in turn wake up the eggplant and celery; the sweet sultanas add little bursts of flavor throughout the dish, contrasting with but not overwhelming the aforementioned ingredients; the pine nuts add a little crunch to keep things interesting; and the vinegar is the team Captain, pulling the whole dish together and making every ingredient sing (who knew humble, unsuspecting vinegar could be so very important?!) Every bite is slightly different from the last depending on what ingredients end up on your fork, making for a dinner where there is never a dull moment. Indeed this was so good that I found myself going back to eat it hours later, straight out of the fridge (yes, caponata does make a delightful late night snack).

A couple of notes: This dish is best when the flavors are allowed to meld together a bit. Feel free to make it the day before you serve it, or let it sit for a couple of hours before serving, if you can. It is delicious served as is with lots of fresh bread, or as Rosemarie recommends, as a side dish to a fish-based main course. I rarely ever salt eggplant when I'm cooking with it (I know, I know, what kind of a cook am I?! But I really do find that I usually don't need to!) If you have one that is particularly seedy it might be on the bitter side, in which case you should follow Rosemarie's instructions below to remove the bitter flavor. Enjoy!


SICILIAN EGGPLANT CAPONATA

Ingredients:
2 eggplants, cut into chunks
1 large onion, cut into slices
2 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
1/3 cup sultanas, soaked in water for an hour
2/3 cup olives
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
500 mL crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons pine nuts 
Basil, to garnish
Olive oil, for frying
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
In a colander, place eggplant chunks and sprinkle generously with salt. Place a plate and another heavy object on top to so as much bitter juice is extracted from eggplant chunks as possible. Leave to sit for an hour. Rinse eggplant chunks with water to remove excess salt. Squeeze eggplant chunks to draw out all the moisture and pat dry thoroughly with a paper towel or cloth. Or, just do as I did and cut the eggplant into chunks.

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan and saute the eggplant chunks. Take care not to overcrowd the pan. With the amount indicated in this recipe, fry a third of the chunks at a time. When the chunks are crisp and golden brown, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels.

In the same frying pan, saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the celery chunks, the green olives and the crushed tomatoes and simmer covered on low to medium heat for 10 minutes.

At this point, add the capers, the fried eggplant, the pine nuts, the sultanas, the vinegar and the sugar. Stir ingredients so they are well-combined, taste for and add salt. If using salt-packed capers, you probably will not need much.  Leave to simmer uncovered on low-medium heat for 20 minutes or until excess liquid has reduced.

Transfer to serving bowl, cover with aluminium foil and leave to rest for 2 hours at room temperature. If leaving your caponata for the following day, place in the refrigerator. Remove from the fridge one hour before serving to best enjoy the dish’s flavors.  Garnish with a couple of basil leaves. Serve as an appetizer (ensure there is plenty of bread on hand!) or as an accompaniment to a fish-based main course. Serves 6-8.



Recipe originally published in www.italymagazine.com, courtesy of Rosemarie Scavo (www.turinmamma.com).





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