People often ask me if I have ever had a failure in the kitchen. That’s like asking if a bear goes number 2 in the woods! Well, of course I have and of course they do! In fact, I don’t know a single cook who hasn’t had a few colossal defeats along the way. It’s just part of the whole cooking experience.
I also have never known a cook who doesn’t have a favorite dish or two that they wish they could perfect, but just can’t seem to come up with the right combination of ingredients or technique to make it happen. I am just as guilty as the next cook in that regard too.
Now granted, I don’t have as many complete failures as I did when I was just learning to cook, but there are still some dishes that I simply can’t duplicate, no matter how hard I try. For example, I still haven’t mastered a truly good version of a Major Grey type chutney. And really, it can’t be that difficult. Never-the-less, I’ve never found a recipe or invented a combination of ingredients that comes close to the real thing.
But then, there also used to be a dish with eggplant, onion, green olives, capers, and tomatoes that I enjoyed in Italy and wanted to re-create at home. I had all but given up on creating the perfect caponata after several failed attempts over a number of years. But thanks to Saveur and old fashioned persistence, I can now serve up a caponata that will knock your socks off! (I made a couple of changes to the recipe in Saveur, but then, of course I did!) But truly, this combination of ingredients is just amazingly delicious. Served on fresh baguette slices, there is darn near nothing that compares with this quintessential Sicilian appetizer for absolute culinary bliss. (How’s that for a description of a simple veggie dish made with easily obtainable ingredients?!)
So if you too happen to adore caponata, or even if you have never tasted this Sicilian comfort food, give this recipe a try. Caponata makes a wonderful appetizer to serve at a dinner party, especially when served with other Italian dishes. And easy! It’s at its best when made a couple days ahead, brought to room temperature or slightly warmed, scooped into a pretty bowl, then surrounded with fresh chewy baguette slices. Your guests will think you are the next best thing to Lidia Bastianich, Marcella Hazan or my personal favorite, Ettore Boiardi (Chef Boy-Ar-Dee). Just kidding! (Actually Ettore Boiardi was a real chef. In fact his restaurant Il Giardino d’Italia which opened in 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio was so well regarded that Boiardi started his canned Italian food business because his restaurant patrons kept asking him for his recipes.) Lidia and Marcella of course are also real chefs, but to the best of my knowledge, neither of them have ever forced pasta into a can!
- 3 medium-large eggplants, partially peeled, and cut into 1/3-inch cubes
- ½ c. extra virgin olive oil, divided (or more as needed)
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
- ¼ tsp. kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 T. tomato paste
- 1 (15-oz.) can tomato sauce, preferably made with Italian tomatoes
- 6 oz. pimento stuffed green olives, roughly chopped (about 1 1/3 cups)
- ½ c. white wine vinegar or if you can find it, Ponti Italian Wine Vinegar – kind of a yellow color – sold at PFI (Pacific Food Importers) – basically my favorite vinegar
- ½ c. golden raisins
- ¼ c. capers, drained
- 3 T. sugar
- 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa
- ½ c. finely shredded basil, or more to taste
Coat the eggplant pieces with 6 tablespoons of the olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet. (If the pieces seem dry, add a little more olive oil. A little more olive oil never hurts.) Roast in a pre-heated 375 degree oven until just browned, about 30 minutes. Turn every 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to a large fry pan. Add the onion, celery, salt, and pepper; slowly cook until the onion starts to caramelize. Add the tomato paste and sauce; let gently burble for 10 minutes. Stir in olives, vinegar, raisins, capers, sugar, and cocoa; cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted eggplant and let burble for another couple of minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the basil. Adjust seasoning. Let cool to room temperature before serving or storing covered in your refrigerator for up to one week. Best made a couple days ahead and served on chewy Italian baguette slices.