Basic Caponata

Not long ago a friend said that he who ate the first eggplant was much more courageous than he who ate the first oyster. (Yes, they were both guys; Urk, the Australopithecus I channel to know such things told me so). Oysters, after all, are mere mollusks while eggplants are noxious nightshades. Since eggplant must be gussied up quite a bit before I’ll make a meal with it, I agreed with fervor. Fortunately, the eggplant, like Cher, has so little character that it’s a pliable basis for dozens of really good dishes such as this Sicilian nosh which itself has many variations, served hot or cold, as a side or a spread. A friend makes vegetarian muffalettas with it, and while purists may wail, there’s nothing to stop you from using caponata instead of olive relish on a meat muffaletta. It’s simple to make, keeps well, and the flavor improves with age. This recipe makes about a quart.

Peel and cube one large eggplant, stew in olive oil with a finely-minced clove of garlic and about half a cup each of chopped celery and sweet onion. This is one of the few recipes you’ll find me recommending a sweet onion; caponata is a sweet/sour concoction, and I prefer to use vegetables and dried fruit for the sweetness instead of sugar. You’ll add maybe a rind of smoked sweet red pepper (a ripe pickled cherry is a nice touch, too), a scant handful of chopped olives and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste to round out the (somewhat) savory elements along with a jolt of strong red wine for both you and the pan. For out-and-out sweetness, use a half cup of dried fruit, figs being excruciatingly appropriate, but don’t let that stop you from using the raisins, dates or apricots you have on hand. A heaping teaspoon of capers (the eponymous and therefore compulsory component) gives enough salt. and a measure of herbal vinegar will set the tartness. With seasonings you’re on your own, but don’t use too much of anything; let the meld define the flavor.

Spanish Eggplant

You could call this a variation of eggplant Parmesan or you could call it a variation of moussaka but truth be told this method of preparing eggplant for the table—en casserole, with tomatoes, onions and peppers—has been a standard for centuries all over the Mediterranean, the distinction here being roasted red peppers, pimientos, sweet thick-skinned red peppers. This dish is fine right out of the oven, but best served cold as a side for grilled meats.

For the seasoning, use a mixture of dried herbs: three parts basil, two parts thyme, one part parsley and one part oregano. You might sniff and say, “Well, that’s just the same thing as that ‘Italian seasoning’ stuff they sell in the supermarket,” to which I would reply, “No, it is not, because the ratios are different; the supermarket blend has far too much oregano, which will make anything you use it in bitter, so there!”) Use plenty of fresh garlic; at least two large cloves. As to the cheese, you’re going to need a queso blanco though any soft unripened or semi-hard cheese—like a Monterey jack, just sayin’—will work quite well.

Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick slices. Brush these liberally with olive oil—you don’t have to use EVO, people, any good olive oil will do—and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Sauté half a large or one small yellow onion with a sweet thin-walled pepper such as a banana or a poblano—you want about two cups of each, coarsely chopped—with the garlic. To this mixture, add a #300 can of whole tomatoes, quartered with juice and reduce by half. Season to taste—about two tablespoons, perhaps—with the herbal mixture along with a dash (or so) of crushed red peppers, layer two roasted and peeled red bell peppers—or six cherry peppers, if you have them—and eggplant with this mixture, top liberally with cheese and bake in a very hot oven until bubbling and cheese is lightly browned. It’s great with pita.