The origins of caponata may be found in Sicily but today it is served throughout Italy, in one form or another. Yet, as varied as the final dishes might be, 5 ingredients form the basis of virtually all renditions: eggplant, tomato, onion, garlic, and olive oil, with eggplant being the star of the dish. Beyond these 5, the additional components depend as much upon the individual cook as it does the region of Italy. There’s no better example of this than Mom’s recipe and the one that Zia, her sister, follows. Both included some bell pepper and mushrooms but Mom, also, added zucchini; Zia rarely, if ever, does. The difference here is minimal but, then again, their kitchens were only separated by less than 20 vertical feet. Imagine the differences when there’s hundreds of miles separating the kitchens. In fact, I’ve seen caponata recipes that include, among other things, olives, pine nuts (pignoli), fennel, capers, currants, celery, and even seafood. Seafood seems a bit much to me and I pretty much follow Mom’s recipe. Still, more important than which recipe to follow is finding the right ingredients. Like Mom & Zia, I’ll choose only those vegetables that are fresh and “in season,” for best results. And if you end up with caponata that looks suspiciously like ratatouille, well, I won’t tell anyone.
Whatever vegetables you choose to include, try to chop them evenly, creating pieces that are roughly the same size by type. I cut the “firm” vegetables — onions, peppers, etc. — into strips. The “soft” vegetables — tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, etc. — are chopped into 3/4 to 1 inch cubes. By cutting the ingredients into strips and cubes, you’ll be adding visual interest to the final dish. When sautéing, begin with the most firm vegetables and proceed until you’ve added the softest. The end-result should be a dish of vegetables that are fully cooked and not at all al dente. Caponata may be served hot, warm or at room temperature. It can be served as a side dish or as an appetizer, where it can be used as a spread or to make bruschetta. Like Mom before me, very often I’ll use it to dress pasta, resulting in a delicious vegetarian dish. Best of all, to my tastes, left-over caponata can be used to make a delicious frittata the next morning. In fact, when I was a boy, Mom always reserved a portion for my breakfast the following day. Today, if I go to a farmers’ market in the morning, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll be having some form of caponata that evening. You can guess what I’ll be having for breakfast the next morning.
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- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, halved and sliced
- 2 bell pepper, sliced into strips – gypsy, cubanelle, or Italian peppers may be substituted
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
- 1 doz. button or crimini mushrooms, quartered
- 2 medium eggplants, cubed (peeling optional)
- 1 – 2 zucchini, cubed
- 2 plum tomatoes, cubed
- salt & pepper, to taste
- Add oil to a large fry pan and heat over a medium-high heat. Add onion and bell pepper, season with salt & pepper, and sauté until barely soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add garlic & parsley and sauté for 1 minute.
- Add mushrooms and continue sautéing for about 5 minutes.
- Add eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, stir to combine, season with salt & pepper, and sauté until done to your liking, at least 8 minutes more.
- The dish is now done and may be served hot, warm, or at room temperature.
As mentioned above, this basic recipe can be modified in any number of ways. Thinly sliced fennel, cubed summer squash, currants, pine nuts, celery, you name it, all may be added. Once you’ve assembled and prepared the ingredients, it’s just a matter of adding them to the pan in an order that assures each will be done to your liking. If the order that I’ve listed above doesn’t do that for you, change it to suit your palate.
Left-over caponata can be served with pasta or used to make a tasty frittata. I’ll devote a later posting to our frittata recipe but, for now, I’ll share the “easy” method. For this, pre-heat your oven to 375*. In a fry pan over med-high heat, re-heat the caponata. Meanwhile, lightly scramble enough eggs to insure ample coverage of the re-heated caponata. Pour the eggs into the fry pan and, like you would with scrambled eggs, use a slotted turner or spatula to gently pull back the edge to let the eggs run behind it. After a few minutes, place the pan in the pre-heated oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until the top of the frittata is set. Top with grated cheese, if desired, and serve immediately.
Coincidentally, while this recipe was waiting to be published, our local PBS station aired a re-broadcast of an episode of Jacques Pepin’s “More Fast Food My Way” during which he prepared ratatouille. Not only did he mention how similar ratatouille was to caponata, he used it to dress some penne pasta. How about that? You can add “French chef” to the list of Mom & Zia’s many titles and accomplishments!
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