Here’s my disclaimer right from the start: I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten caponata, at least I’m not aware of doing so. The one and only time I’ve been to Italy was a beautiful trip to Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome when I was 12 and therefore long before any sense of my culinary being was formed. (Seriously– what’s Italy to a 12-year-old other than plain cheese pizza and chocolate gelato?) So I in no way claim that this recipe is authentic or looks/tastes anything like caponata should. I’ll tell you this though– you should make this as it is freakin’ delicious.
Caponata is an eggplant relish. What makes it interesting is how it embodies the Italian concept of agrodolce— the balance of sweet and sour. That balance comes from the mix of sweet tomatoes, eggplant, and sugar with acidic flavors of vinegar and capers. While researching recipes, there seemed to be two main variants of caponata– an Italian version and a Sicilian version. The Italian versions called for added sweetness from dried fruits like currents or raisins plus an added bright finish of fresh mint, while the Sicilian versions were more briny, skipping the dried fruit and adding chopped olives as well as capers. I drew my inspiration from both kinds of recipes, adding to my relish what I thought were some of the tastiest ingredients to make a caponata I could really love.
To add further depth of flavor, I decided to try grilling the vegetables for my relish rather than sautéing them in a pan. I thought that grilling would not only save me some of my discomfort with how much oil it takes to cook eggplant in a pan but would also add an undercurrent of smoke and char which would pair nicely with those sweet and sour flavors. Besides, my intent for this caponata was to spread it on a sandwich with some grilled summer squash. Since the grill would be fired up in order to cook slices of zucchini for the sandwich, I might as well take advantage of the effort and grill space by grilling the eggplant, tomato, and onion.
The grill imparted fine bits of char to the tomatoes and white onion and the heat of the grill gave me nicely browned pieces of eggplant, the flesh rendered silky smooth, with just a mere brushing of olive oil. A quick pulse of the vegetables in my food processor did all the chopping for me and all this required was a simmering in a pan with the other ingredients of garlic, fresh basil, pine nuts, golden raisins, capers, balsamic vinegar, and spices. I spread some of the finished product on pieces of ciabatta, layered on the grilled squash and slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, then cooked them in a pan, weighted down with additional pans so that the bread would get crisp and the cheese would melt quickly. I loved how everything played together– sweet squash, milky cheese, butter pine nuts, and refreshing notes from basil and mint. I long to go back to Italy now and give the real caponata a try… and some more chocolate gelato couldn’t hurt too.
- 2 medium eggplants, trimmed and sliced lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices
- 3 large Roma tomatoes, halved lengthwise
- 1 medium white onion, trimmed, peeled and sliced cross-wise into 1/2 inch thick slices
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 2 tablespoons capers with their brining liquid
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
Grilled Squash Sandwiches
- 1 medium and 1 large zucchini, trimmed and sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices
- olive oil
- 8 oz fresh mozzarella
- 1 loaf ciabatta, ends trimmed off and remaining loaf cut in half and split
- salt and pepper
Heat your grill, testing whether your grate is hot enough by holding your hand 5 inches above the grill and you can’t last for more than 10 seconds. Brush both sides of the eggplant, tomato, onion, and squash (if making sandwiches) slices with olive oil. Grill over direct heat until dark brown grill marks form. The time will vary depending on the vegetable– for the onions and tomato, this will likely take 5-10 minutes, while for the squash and eggplant, this will take 10-15 minutes. Remove tomatoes when grill marks form. For the other vegetables, flip them over and continue to grill until marks form on the other side. Remove the squash and the onions when tender and striped with grill marks, but for the eggplant, brush both sides with oil again and continue to cook until flesh is deep brown, flipping as necessary to avoid burning. Total cooking time for the eggplant is about 40-50 minutes.
Let the grilled eggplant, tomatoes, and onion cool to touch then roughly chop before adding to a food processor bowl fitted with a steel blade. Add the garlic too then pulse until eggplant, tomatoes, and onion are no bigger than 1/4 inch pieces. Add the food processor contents to a small sauce pan. Add the rest of the caponata ingredients except for olive oil and mint and stir to combine, simmering over medium heat for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste then mix in the fresh mint right before serving.
If making sandwiches, spread a tablespoon or two of the caponata on one side of your sandwich, spreading caponata on two of your four bread pieces. On the other side of your sandwiches, add the mozzarella slices and the squash slices. Season the squash with salt and pepper to taste. Top with the other side of your sandwich then brush the top and bottom of the sandwiches with olive oil. Set down the sandwiches in a large skillet that has been heating over medium heat. Squash down the sandwiches with a couple of smaller pans or with a plate and a large heavy can. Cook for 4-5 minutes or until cheese melts and bread is toasty brown without burning. Flip and repeat cooking on other side. Cut the two sandwiches in half– one half is large enough for one serving.
CSA Count: 3 (4 if you make the sandwiches)
Onion, garlic, basil, and zucchini squash
Garden Count: 1