A kind of Sicilian Caponata
Does an ingredient ever grab you and hold on for dear life? Is it there constantly in the back of your mind and in the crisper drawer? Does is weasel its way in until you can’t seem to cook a meal in which it doesn’t feature? Pmum may not have said anything to me just yet about my eggplant problem, but I’m pretty sure if she comes home to find another ratatouille for dinner, or roasted eggplant salad, again, something is going to crack.
And crack it may well have were it not for the intersection of a succubus vegetable and an ethereal idea of a dish that had been floating around for a while now. I dreamt of Caponata when the weather started to warm. This savoury concoction, somewhere between a salad and a stew assembled and cooked for just long enough for the different flavours to mingle and become friends. Spiked with sweet and sour, unctuous and crisp bound with the indefinable and unexpected umami of ripe tomatoes, caponata is even better in real life than in dreams.
I’m sure it isn’t just me that is aubergine-obsessed, this condition extends from almost the world over to varying degrees, think smokey baba ganoush, moussaka, and that amazing braised eggplant dish from the Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown. I love the opulence of a pile of heavy purple back shiny skinned classic eggplant as well as baby apple eggplants bobbing in thai curry, but my current favourite is the slender pale purple Japanese variety plentiful in Hanoi.
Is the best way to prepare and eat eggplant fried? I’d take a poll but I am pretty sure the answer would be a resounding yes. Steamed and stewed aubergine is good too, but fried is where its at, well until now. I don’t like deep frying at home. I see it as a treacherously slippery slope that could quickly turn from ‘just a few breakfast churros‘ to having to buy two plane tickets to accommodate my ever increasing girth when I return to Sydney or even worse, to a wardrobe comprise entirely of handmade muumuus. I’ve found a way to prepare eggplant that is easy on the oil and still tastes great. Yotam Ottolenghi came up with the idea, simple really, of lightly coating sliced eggplant in oil and roasting. Though this method doesn’t result in the buttery flesh of deep frying, it enhances the flavour and provides deliciously softened flesh with the occasional crunch.
A kind of Sicilian Caponata
2 Tablespoons sultanas or currants
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 medium Japanese Eggplant
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6-8 ripe roma tomatoes, roughly chopped.
2 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
100g green olives
1 teaspoon sugar
sea salt and pepper.
For the eggplant: Wash eggplants well and remove tops. Cut in half lengthways, then cut each half in to 3 of four wedges. Cut wedges into 3 or 4 cm lengths. Mix together with half the olive oil until each eggplant piece is lightly coated. Spread out on a lined baking tray and cook in 200C oven for 15- 20 minutes until tender and wilted.
In a small pan add vinegar and sultanas and bring to the boil, then set aside to cool.
Meanwhile peel eschallots. Heat remaining oil in a large pan and add the eshallots, stirring over medium heat until browned. Add the tomatoes, cover and cook until tomato has collapsed. Add cooked eggplant, sugar and seasoning and cook lightly for 5 minutes for flavours to develop. Add remaining ingredients and cook for a further 3 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning and vinegar levels. Serve hot or warm, as a side dish, over polenta or stirred through pasta.
I ate some of this stirred through hot freshly cooked penne – some sultanas and pine nuts got stuck in the tubes for flavourful surprises.