Summer is in full force (in every sense of the word!) now and this means that there is an abundance of eggplants in all shapes, colours and sizes at my local market. Italy is one of the world’s biggest producers of this vegetable and it is a common ingredient in many dishes here such as parmigiana di melanzane, pasta alla Norma and caponata.
Eggplants are native to India and appear to have been cultivated there for over 4,000 years. Historians generally believe that they were introduced in the Mediterranean region by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. With their distinctly purple flowers and bulbous fruits, they were initially grown as ornamental plants. Cultivation for culinary uses took a much longer time to catch on, as they were thought to be inedible and poisonous. In fact, many people believe that the Italian name for eggplant, melanzana, derives from mela non sana, which roughly translates to ‘crazy apple’. The French (and British English) aubergine, on the other hand, appears to derive from the Arabic albadingian (which was later absorbed into Catalan as alberginia).
Having grown up with a mother of Sicilian background and a Calabrese-born father, eggplants featured prominently in my family’s cooking. I didn’t always appreciate them when I was a child. Once I left home though and started cooking for myself, I found myself trying to replicate scents and flavours from my childhood kitchen. Eggplants thus went on to play an important role in my summer cookery.
An eggplant-based dish I’m particularly fond of is the sublime Sicilian relish, caponata. In an article for The Guardian in 2005, Lombardy-born chef Giorgio Locatelli described his first taste of caponata as an explosion in his senses. With its distinct combination of sweetness and sourness, I feel it’s an apt description of what this appetiser is all about. The dish’s base ingredients are eggplant, onion, tomato, celery, vinegar, capers, olives, basil, sugar and salt. However, you’ll find variations on this base all over the Sicilian isle. The catanesi and agrigentini are reknowned for adding capsicums to theirs and la versione palermitana features pine nuts and sultanas. Other provincial variations include the addition of potatoes, zucchinis, cinnamon, fish (usually mullet or tuna) roe and carrots. Basically, as Locatelli says, caponata can be ‘a collection of whatever ingredients you have to hand or fancy eating’.
Generally, caponata is prepared by frying each vegetable separately before mixing and cooking them in tomato sauce, vinegar and sugar. A few years ago though, I started experimenting with a lighter no-fry variant which is baked in the oven instead. In my opinion, the flavour is on par with the traditional fried version and I now prefer to prepare it this way.
This is how I made my oven-baked caponata last weekend:
- 2 medium-large-sized eggplants, cut into 2 x 4 cm chunks
- 2 celery stalks, cut into small chunks
- 2 carrots, cut into small chunks
- 2 large red onions, cut into small chunks
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- ½ cup white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon olives, pitted and drained
- 1 tablespoon salt-preserved capers, rinsed and with excess salt removed
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for purging eggplants
- 3 basil leaves, plus extra for garnish
- In a colander, place eggplant chunks and sprinkle generously with salt.
- Place a plate and another heavy object on top to so as much bitter juice is extracted from eggplant chunks as possible. Leave to sit for an hour.
- Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees.
- Rinse eggplant chunks with water to remove excess salt.
- Squeeze eggplant chunks to draw out all the moisture and pat dry thoroughly with a paper towel or cloth.
- In a large bowl, combine and mix all ingredients together.
- Place mixture in a baking tray covered with aluminium and bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes (N.B. Remove baking tray from oven at 30 minute intervals to stir mixture).
- Remove caponata from oven and leave to cool until room temperature.
- Serve chilled or room temperature as an appetiser. Garnish with a couple of basil leaves.
N.B. Photos in this post updated on 28.07.2016. For the fried version of this dish, you may want to visit this link at Italy Magazine.