Choosing Good Eggplants (and making them into Caponata, the ultimate vegetable preserve).
Many people grow eggplants, but after long years of struggle I am no longer one of them. Two reasons:
1). Eggplants need warm nights as well as warm days. This means our garden on the Maine coast is not a hospitable environment, eggplant-wise.
2). Eggplants have a short window of peak splendor on the plant. Pick them too soon; they’re undersized and bland. Pick them too late; they’re seedy and bitter. So although the plants do pretty well down at the place in the Hudson Valley, I can never count on being there at the optimum time.
But in order to make caponata, the delicious Sicilian conserve of eggplant, capers and olives in thick sweet and sour tomato sauce, it is necessary to have eggplants. Off to Beth’s Farm Market “All Produce Sold Here is Grown Here,” right down the road in Warren, Maine (I’ve never asked, but as you drive up you see many huge greenhouses which may well be relevant).
Choosing eggplants: regardless of size, shape or color, a good eggplant is firm and shiny. Shine tells you how old it was when it was picked: the duller the skin, the older the fruit, the more spongy its texture and the more developed its seeds. Firmness tells you how old it has grown since picking day. The longer it sits around, the flabbier it gets.
Seems to be having a bit of a moment just now, possibly because Southern Italy is (again) a hot region, possibly because it’s finally ok to publish recipes for food that is not photogenic. And of course possibly because something this good can’t help hitting the limelight from time to time.
There’s no equivalent I can think of among vegetable preserves. The rich, complex flavor and tender texture bear no resemblance to pickles or chowchow and caponata has almost nothing to do with catsup or chili sauce, tomatoes notwithstanding. It’s simply a distillation of Mediterranean harvest, a summer of sun in a small jar.
Serve it as an appetizer with crusty bread, if you want to be traditional. Use it to top grilled zucchini or bluefish or roasted winter squash. Mix it half and half with roasted tomatoes and you’ve got a meatless tomato sauce that lifts lasagna to whole new levels.
For about 7 cups (I suppose this is the part where I have to warn you producing caponata IS a bit of a production, so there’s no point in making only a little. But it does keep well; see the note on storage at the end):
3.5 – 4 lbs of large eggplants
2 ½ c. onion, in ½ inch dice
1 ½ c. celery, sliced ¼ inch thick
4 -5 lbs. ripe tomatoes, use the larger amount if they’re super juicy
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
¼ cup sugar, or more to taste
3/4 c. minced basil
1/2 c. minced flat-leaf parsley
3 cups olive oil plus more as needed – see note 1.
1 to 2 tablespoons crushed dried hot pepper
1 cup well drained vinegar-packed nonpareil capers
1/3 c. green olives – chopped into pea sized pieces
1/3 c. oil cured black olives- – chopped into pea sized pieces
1. Cut the eggplant into ¾ inch cubes and layer them in a large colander, sprinkling each layer with salt. Put the colander in the sink; put a plate on top of the eggplant and put a weight (gallon jug of water, for instance) on the plate. Let the eggplant drain until the pieces are almost – but not quite – soft enough to be squished flat. This will probably take 4 or 5 hours.
2. Make the tomato sauce. Peel the tomatoes – see note 2 – and coarsely chop. Combine them in a large, non-reactive kettle with ¼ cup of the vinegar and all of the sugar. Simmer over low heat until the sauce is much reduced but still has a bit more tomato juice than a tomato sauce would have. Stir in half of the basil and parsley and turn off the heat.
3. Shortly before you want to start cooking in earnest, spread the cut onion and celery on cookie sheets to dry out a bit. Put the drained eggplant in a tea towel – or towels – and squeeze out remaining free moisture.
4. Put the oil in a deep heavy pan about 8 inches wide. Heat slowly to 370 degrees. Fry the celery, in batches, until the edges start to turn light brown. As each batch is done, lift it with a slotted spoon, drain it well against the side of the pan, then add it to the tomato sauce.
5. Next fry the eggplant, again in batches, until it is dark gold-brown. Drain and add to sauce as above. The eggplant should not absorb much oil if you keep the heat steady and don’t overload the pan.
6. Check the oil level and add more if necessary to keep the layer a scant inch deep, then do the onions. By now the oil will be almost “fried out” and the onions will color rapidly. Gold is ideal; brown is also fine, but don’t let them burn.
7. Reheat the sauce over low heat, stir in the remaining basil, parsley and vinegar and cook until the mixture is thick, with very little free liquid. Add the olives and capers and keep cooking, stirring almost constantly, until there is no free liquid at all.
Put a spoonful on a chilled plate and let it cool to lukewarm. Taste. Add salt if necessary – the eggplant usually provides plenty – and a bit of vinegar if it’s too sweet or sugar if it’s too sour. Turn off the heat. Proceed to canning (below) if that’s the plan. Otherwise just proceed to step 8.
8. Sit down and have a glass of wine – and a chunk of crusty bread with caponata.
Note 1. There are many quite different recipes for this classic, and far be it from me to say mine is particularly “authentic”, but I will point out that any version that prides itself on using only a small amount of oil is nothing to be proud of, at least as far as the caponata part is concerned
Note 2. To peel tomatoes: Dip into boiling water for about 3 seconds. The skin will loosen and come right off. If they’re hyper ripe, you can gently rub all over the skin with the dull side of a paring knife. Most of the skin will loosen enough to slip.
Tightly covered, caponata will keep in the refrigerator for 10 days to 2 weeks, long enough to get used up if you have a large family or many friends and an inclination to entertain. Freezing is ok as a last resort, but not recommended because it tends to make the caponata watery on thawing.
Traditionally, caponata is canned, and I have always done just that, carefully using sterile small jars, processing them thoroughly in a boiling water bath, and trusting the tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and pickled embellishments to make the stuff sweet and acid enough to prevent the growth of bacteria. So far, so good, but although caponata resembles jam, it isn’t jam, and if you want to can it safely you really ought to use a pressure canner.