Food, like music, can be an instrument of time travel. The notes of a particular refrain, the four or five bars of intro to a song, often act as a drone missile to an exact location in your past. You hear it and explode with not just memories, but emotions and sensations connected to a very specific moment in your history. Flavors, aromas and textures are the notes in food that take us on a similar journey. One minute I’m old as dirt (or maybe just top soil) and in my kitchen getting that tingly feeling on my tongue, tasting the creamy, oily eggplant in this perfectly-balanced Caponata from Nancy Silverton’s Mozza Cookbook, and the next minute I’m a child of indiscriminate age in my mother’s knotty pine kitchen, pushing her garlicky pan-fried eggplant awash in cheap olive oil onto my fork with a crust of French bread.
My mother sliced eggplant into thinnish rounds, salted it, let it sweat out in a colander for a while, then just pan fried it in plenty of oil. She then packed it away in Tupperware, layer upon layer, with a few dozen cloves of sliced garlic in between. It was a side dish from my father’s Mediterranean roots that my DNA responded to. That’s how I feel about this caponata. My genome is lighting up over it even though Silverton describes caponata as a “traditional Sicilian preparation” and I’m not Italian. Eggplant, extra-virgin olive oil, onion, garlic, currants, red pepper flakes, tomatoes, and vinegar and you could be reciting a partial ingredient list of recipes found on both sides of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Istanbul.
This dish, like my roasted balsamic herb tomatoes, could definitely become a staple of my refrigerator, now that I’ve had this version of it. It’s so easy to make (though it does call for 1/2 cup of the Passata di Pomodoro or basic tomato sauce I posted with the recent insanely good meatballs from Mozza)…
…and could easily find it’s way onto pasta, sandwiches, baked fish or as a side for grilled anything, could dress up a store-bought rotisserie, turn rice or an omelette into a complete meal, and so forth. Or you can just eat it alone with a nice hunk of bread instead.
- yield: Serves 4
1 1/2 pounds egglplant, cut into 1 inch cubes (about 8 cups)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large yellow Spanish onion, cut in 1-inch dice (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons dried currants (or raisins)
1/2 cup basic tomato sauce (Passata di Pomodoro)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Place the eggplant cubes in a bowl, sprinkle with the salt and pepper and toss to coat.
Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat until it is almost smokking and slides easily in the pan, 2-3 minutes. Add the eggplant. (The pan may be crowded, but do not worry, the eggplant will good down quickly.) Cook the eggplant without stirring for 2 minutes or until it begins to brown. Resist the temptation to stir because you really want the eggplant to get the deep brown color that it will only get from longer contact with the pan. Drizzle another 1/4 cup of oil over the eggplant and continue to cook for 6-7 minutes, adding the remaining oil half-way through, until the eggplant is brown all over, shaking the pan and and turning the eggplant with a spatula to brown the pieces evenly.
Use a slotted spatula to remove the eggplant to a plate and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring constantly so the water released from the onion deglazes the pan. Cook until onion is translucent, (not browned) about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, currants, and red pepper flakes and cook or 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant, stirring constantly so it doesn’t brown and turn bitter. Add the tomato sauce, blasamic vinegar, thyme, and sugar, and stir to combine.
Return the eggplant to the pan and add 2 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts. Stir gently to combine the ingredients, cover and cook for 5 minutes over medium-low heat. Remove the lid and cook for another 5 minutes, or until almost all of the liquid is evaporated. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or sugar, if desired.
Sprinkle with remaining pine nuts and serve, or set the caponata aside to cool to room temperature, transfer it to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 4-5 days. Best served warm or at room temperature.
Adapted from Mozza Cookbook, by Nancy Silverton