Okay, we have a week left of summer and I’m milking it for everything it’s worth. Right now I have peaches ripening in my fruit bowl and I’m going to make peach ice cream, probably the last ice cream I’ll make for a while. It’s not that summer truly ends here in L.A. — if anything it keeps going and going and going — but at some point, as a seasonally-focused home cook, you’ve gotta embrace the calendar. So right now it’s tomato salads galore; next week it’ll be pumpkin bread.
And a great transitional dish? Caponata. “What’s caponata?” you ask. Think ratatouille with the dial turned up to eleven. Instead of a bunch of stewed summer vegetables, you have deeply browned eggplant, earthy celery, briny capers, and then red wine vinegar, sugar (yes, there’s sugar), and white wine. It’s sort of like an eggplant pickle but also an eggplant salad and also an eggplant condiment.
Eggplant is a little intimidating for people. There are a lot of rules associated with it — “salt it or it’ll be bitter,” “drain it,” “look for thin ones,” “it drinks up all the oil” — but I’ve learned to just be casual with eggplant and my life has been better for it. Turned out, I didn’t need these two enormous eggplants to make caponata; I cubed one up and fried it, in batches, in a skillet with lots of olive oil.
My technique here is: I add 1/4 cup oil, add in a portion of the eggplant cubes, and I don’t touch them. I let them fry for a bit and then, after a minute or so, I shake the pan. If they detach, they’re ready to flip. Even though, at this point, most of the oil will have been absorbed, I don’t add more (I made this mistake once when cooking dinner for a celebrity (!) and served the greasiest eggplant you can imagine). I just cook it on the other side and then remove the eggplant to a bowl when it’s brown all over and season just then.
Then comes the onions, the celery, and, in this case, fennel. I was following this David Tanis recipe from The New York Times, only I wanted to do it all in one pan. He doesn’t mention fennel, but I had fennel, so I thought: “Why not fennel?”
You’ll also see tomato paste there and white wine. When I was going to wing it, I was going to add actual tomatoes; but what’s great about tomato paste is you get that tomatoey flavor without the liquidity of actual tomatoes.
Capers add the requisite brininess and olives would be great here — they’re traditional — but I forgot to buy them. Never you mind! “That’s not caponata,” a caponata expert might say. If you’re a caponata expert, please stop reading.
Once you add the red wine vinegar, sugar, and white wine, you return the eggplant to the pan, stir everything around, and then you just leave it to sit and marinate. It’s really a glorious thing: you can make it hours ahead.
As you can see here, I served it with seared cod and the combination of the buttery fish with the spiky, sweet-and-sour eggplant was dreamy. But caponata could be used for so many things: put it on grilled bread and call it bruschetta; serve it with salmon, on pasta, or just eat it by itself.
It’s a dish that’ll have you sad that summer’s over but, also, you can make this in the winter. The only seasonal ingredient, really, is the eggplant and, between you and me, have you ever tasted a winter eggplant vs. a summer eggplant and thought: “Wow, that tastes so different?” This last paragraph is what’s called a twist ending.
- 1 large eggplant
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 1 bulb fennel, cored and chopped
- 1 Tbs tomato paste
- 2 Tbs capers
- 1 cup pitted green olives Note: I didn’t have these, but they’re kind of important.
- 3 Tbs sugar
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- Chopped parsley, celery leaves, and fennel fronds
Cube the eggplant and start heating 1/4 cup olive oil in a large metal skillet.
Add the first batch of eggplant; giving the eggplant enough room so every piece is touching the bottom of the pan. Leave alone and let fry for a minute then shake the pan. If the eggplant detaches, you’re ready to flip. If it doesn’t, keep going. Fry the eggplant on all sides (but don’t add more oil here or it’ll be greasy) until golden brown, then set aside, and continue with the rest of the eggplant, adding another 1/4 cup oil with each new batch. Season the eggplant, once cooked, with kosher salt.
Add another 1/4 cup oil to the now-empty skillet. Add the onions, celery, and fennel with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to brown. Might take up to ten minutes.
Add the tomato paste, stir around, and let toast for a minute. Then add the capers, the olives, the sugar, the red wine vinegar, and the white wine. Stir all around, working up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan, and allow to simmer on medium heat for a minute or two.
Add all of the eggplant back in, stir all around, simmer another minute until most of the liquid is gone, then turn off the heat. Add the chopped herbs, stir together, and allow the caponata to sit for an hour before serving.
Lamb Merguez with Eggplant Jam and Green Olives (Amateur Gourmet)
Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts (Amateur Gourmet)
Seared Eggplant with Spicy Glazed Peanuts (Ben Mims, LA Times)
Caponata (David Lebovitz)
Caponata (Smitten Kitchen)