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A Caponata to Feed the Soul

Caponata alla Siciliana

It was when I first tasted the Italian appetizer Caponata that I decided I must have been Italian in another life. It spoke to me — this unctuous relish, calling me home to a distant Mediterranean shore I had yet to visit. Everything about it was at once familiar and a revelation.

I was determined to find the definitive recipe. In those pre-Web days (I'm dating myself now), it took a bit of work to track down cookbooks and scour magazines. During the trial for the second recipe I found, a friend who had emigrated to the US from Sicily happened to stop by so he was a natural target for my efforts. I loved this version, but what would a real Italian think?

"I'm testing a caponata recipe, will you taste it and tell me what you think?" I asked. Eying me with a combination of curiosity and suspicion (what does this girl from Guam know about caponata?), he asked me how I even knew about caponata. I told him I had tried it in a restaurant in The City (San Francisco). With bemused indulgence, he accepted the proffered baguette slice and heaped a generous dab of the chunky relish. One bite. Surprise. Delight. A second bite. Approval.

"Wow, are you sure you're not Italian?" he joked. I confessed my suspicions about having lived a previous incarnation in Italia. Munching through a second caponata-laden baguette, he crowed, "Not just Italian, Baby, you must have been Sicilian!" There is no higher praise.

CAPONATA ALLA SICILIANA
(adapted from a
San Jose Mercury News clipping)
2 medium eggplant (1.25lb total), peeled and diced
1.5 tsp. salt (for optional step)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 ribs celery, diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
(or 1 15oz can diced tomatoes with juice)
2 TBL. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. sea salt
1/3 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
2 TBL. capers, drained
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (optional)
2 TBL. parsley, minced
sea salt and ground black pepper

(Optional Step: I used to do this because it was in the original recipe, but have found that if the eggplant is properly browned, this step is unnecessary.) Toss eggplant with salt and drain in colander 30 min. Rinse and pat dry.

In large skillet, brown eggplant in 1/4 cup oil over medium-high heat until all sides are golden brown. Remove from pan.

In remaining oil, saute onion, garlic, celery and carrots until vegetables are soft, but not colored. Add tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and olives, bring mix to a boil. Lower heat, return browned eggplant, and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally

Add capers, nuts and parsley. Transfer to bowl to cool. Chill overnight. Season to taste before serving at room temperature with thick slices of sourdough baguette.

for Giovanni Giuseppe