Eggplant caponata, an Italian dish with eggplant, onions, celery, tomatoes, and olives, is one of my “go to” appetizers. Whether I’m having a big party, need to bring a substantial contribution to a potluck, or just have a compulsion to “feed” my freezer, caponata fits the bill. I got the original recipe from my friend Liz. Although I have adapted the directions and certain ingredients, I think of her whenever I make it, which is often.
Don’t be fooled when you read the ingredients – it isn’t ratatouille or tomato sauce. Instead, eggplant caponata is a slightly sweet-and-sour, tangy mélange of vegetables that can be served with crackers or thin slices of Italian or French-style bread (baguette), as a condiment for fish or chicken, or even dabbed on pasta.
Admittedly this recipe requires patience. But for an investment of an hour of chopping and an hour of cooking (some of which is basically unattended), you’ll be rewarded with a heaping bowl of intense homemade goodness. Other reasons to love caponata:
- It freezes well, so you can have it at-the-ready for that impromptu dinner party you’ve been “planning” forever, no matter when you finally make it happen.
- Store-bought caponata is nowhere near as good and it costs a bundle. Depending on the brand and location, I’ve find the commercially prepared versions for $3-4 for 7 ounces, which translates to $18-24 for the amount this recipe makes, compared to $6-7 for the homemade version.
If you aren’t a big fan of eggplant, don’t impose that memory of baked or fried eggplant dishes on caponata. Here the eggplant is salted, rinsed, and dried into tiny, soft pieces that don’t overwhelm the dish in quantity, taste, or size. Another surprise (at least to me) is the starring role that slow-cooked celery has in this dish. The keys to this dish are the chopping (into small reasonably uniform pieces) and slow cooking stages; everything else is just commentary.
This delicious appetizer goes well on crackers or bread. It has just enough zip to be interesting but isn't spicy.
- 2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into tiny cubes about 2 medium or 1 large eggplants – cut into tiny (½ inch) cubes
- 2 cups celery, finely chopped about 6 stalks
- ¾ cup onion, finely chopped about 1 medium onion
- ½ cup olive oil, divided
- ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- 1-28 ounce can, good quality Italian-style Roma tomatoes (reserve liquid)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 6 large or 18 small green olives, pitted - rinsed and sliced
- salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons pine (pignola) nuts - optional
- 2-3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Place the eggplant cubes into a colander set over a bowl and salt them well. (I use about 2 teaspoons of salt. Don’t be concerned about eating all this salt; you’ll rinse this salt off – it helps drain the water out of the eggplant.) Toss the cubes and salt with your hands. Set aside.
- Heat half the oil (¼ cup) in the large pan until it is hot but not smoking. Put the chopped celery in the pan and cook it over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Don’t let it burn, so if the celery is getting browned, turn the heat down. When the celery first cooks, it turns a bright green, then the color lightens as the celery continues to cook.
- Add the chopped onions and continue cooking (and stirring) for another 8-10 minutes until the onion is almost transparent. Turn off the heat.
Go back to the eggplant and run the cubes (in the colander) under cold water, tossing them with your hands and pressing them until you have thoroughly rinsed the salt out. Press the cubes again, to drain out as much water as possible.
- Rinse/dry the bowl (that the colander sat on) and transfer the celery/onion mixture into it.
- Heat the other ¼ cup of oil in the now-empty pan. Once it is hot but not smoking, add the eggplant cubes. Sauté them, stirring every few minutes, for 15-20 minutes.
- Return the celery/onion mixture to the pan with the eggplant and mix them together.
- Mix the vinegar and sugar, then add them to the pan, along with the canned tomatoes (without the juice), the tomato paste, and sliced olives.
- Stir the mixture until it is well combined, gently breaking up the tomatoes with the spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer it (uncovered) for 15 minutes, stirring just every once in a while to keep it from sticking. As the caponata cools, add salt and pepper to taste. Once it is cool, add the pine nuts and/or capers.
For the eggplant, celery, and onion, don’t stress over total uniformity as you chop, but try to get the pieces as small as possible. Keep in mind that spreading caponata on a cracker is not easy if the pieces are too big. The pieces will diminish in size slightly, but not much during preparation and they remain distinct. The easiest and most efficient way to cut these vegetables is to make slice, then chop, holding several slices together.
Liz adds 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and mashed to her eggplant caponata, but I don’t because many of my guests aren’t big anchovy fans. With or without anchovies, this eggplant caponata is definitely a winner.