Caponata My Way - Sicilian Eggplant Relish
When I made the commitment to eat what was in season, I found that in August and September in Texas, eggplant was prolific among my farmer friends that I regularly bought from at the farmers’ market. I had never been exposed to eggplant and wasn’t even sure what to do. I did, however, know that I was in love with regional Italian cooking so I looked up recipes for eggplant and found Caponata that was from Sicily and included capers and olives. Loving all things olives, I decided to give it a go. We were hooked.
The Stars of Caponata
The “what grows together goes together” mantra must have started in the Mediterranean and it is so true for this dish. In late summer, tomatoes, eggplant and aged onions (besides the also ubiqtuitous peppers and cucumbers) are abundant and these are the main ingredients you will find in every caponata recipe. Sicilian food, in general, also has a little spice in everything as Sicily is a very warm island off the southernmost end of Italy, therefore you will almost always find either chopped hot peppers or red pepper flakes in any recipe for this dish. Tomatoes show up either as tomato paste or fresh tomatoes that are peeled and chopped, but they need to be perfectly in season, sweet and meaty. Most tomatoes grown here are for size and not flavor, so tomato paste became my go to, though in our brief time in California, I always used fresh tomatoes since every possible size and color grew there.
The other ingredients you will find in caponata are definitely the supporting cast. A relish needs to have sweet and sour elements and a little variation in texture. As I previously mentioned, olives and capers are typically involved and pine nuts are added for a little crunch and texture variety. I use slivered almonds since pine nuts are VERY expensive, however and it is almost as good. Go with pine nuts if you can, however, at least once. The sour element is typically a vinegar, most often red wine vinegar and something sweet such as raisins and a little extra sugar or honey to balance out the vinegar. Some recipes contain a bit of chocolate but that never sounded great to me. If you take the time to look up caponata recipes, you will see many different iterations as each Nonna in Italy has her own way of doing it and passes it along to her family who in turn change it up to meet their tastes. The recipe below is my version that has evolved over the years.
What to Eat It With
Our favorite way to eat caponata was always with grilled or toasted bread as part of an appetizer or picnic spread, but as we have phased out most carbs in our lifestyle, we now favor it with fish. Swordfish would be the most typical fish from the Sicilian cuisine, but we have eaten it on whole grilled branzino, salmon and grilled mahi (pictured here.)
The One Technique You Need to Know
There is only one technique you need to know for caponata - Leave It Alone. The eggplant is a sponge and you want it to brown. If you place eggplant in a pan and stir it, it will steam, however if you place it in a single layer in a hot pan with a little oil, it will get nice and brown. The first three steps of the recipe are pictured below.
We home cooks like to feel busy so we tend to mess with things too much, but to get that awesome brown color that also signifies deep flavor, we need to let food sit on heat without being bothered.
Whole30 Friendly Caponata
This recipe depends on a balance of sweet and sour. To get that without using added sweeteners as in the recipe below, and stay compliant with Whole30, soak 1/4 cup raisins (in addition to the ones in recipe) or one pitted date in hot water until they plump. Blend them up with the soaking water until it becomes a thick sweet liquid. Strain it to remove any solids (or leave them in for further texture) and mix with the vinegar. Add in Step 7 instead of sugar and vinegar.
Sicilian Eggplant Caponata
1 large or 2 medium eggplant (about 2 lbs), cut into 1/2” cubes
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped onion
red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt or as needed to taste
2 tbsp tomato paste or 1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tbsp organic sugar or 1 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp balsamic, sherry or red wine vinegar
1/2 cup raisins (I've used both golden and dark) - Whole30 modification see above
1/4 cup sliced olives
2 tbsp capers
1/4 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds, toasted, optional
In a very large skillet, heat 3 tbsp olive oil with the garlic until the garlic starts to turn slightly golden. Remove with a slotted spoon to a small strainer over a bowl.
Add the onion to the pan along with a little more olive oil. Let it cook for a bit, then remove the onion to the strainer. Add any drained oil back to the pan.
Carefully add enough eggplant cover the bottom of the skillet in a single layer.
Sprinkle with 1/4 tsp salt then let it cook undisturbed for a few minutes until you can smell the eggplant getting a little toasty. Carefully turn it to reveal the golden undersides and salt with another 1/4 tsp salt. (If you were able to fit all the eggplant at one time into the skillet, adjust the salt as necessary. You may need a bit more or less.)
When the eggplant has softened a bit stir it and push it to one side of the pan then add the remaining eggplant and remaining oil to make a single layer in the other side of the pan. (I was able to fit way more than half the first time around so I only needed to use half the pan, but if you have a lot of eggplant left, remove what has already cooked to the strainer with the onion and cook the rest.) Repeat the cooking process with the remaining eggplant.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the tomato paste and a big pinch of red pepper flakes. Stir until the tomato paste takes on a darker color and begins to coat the vegetables.
Add the onions and garlic, sugar or maple syrup, vinegar and raisins then stir it all together with a rubber spatula to combine everything well without breaking up the eggplant.
Finally, add the pine nuts if using.
I stash mine in 1/2 pint canning jars since tomato paste tends to discolor plastics. It will keep for a week in the fridge or up to 3 months in the freezer.