This has been the most disgusting summer I've ever spent in New York. I can remember back to times there was no air conditioning in the subways; back to when I had to ride those subways back and forth to work in a suit. I remember sweating through summer school in high school, army boot camp at Fort Dix, and National Guard summer training at Camp Drum. None of it prepared me for this summer in New York.The only saving grace is that being semi-retired, I can choose the days I have to go out. I don't even like to eat much when the weather is like this, but I do cook. My theory is you cook a lot of stuff so if the mood to eat should come upon you, there are choices. Also, with produce being more available and cheaper I tend to buy more and hence, cook more.
Caponata is a great choice for summer food since it needn't be eaten hot and it keeps well in the refrigerator. It's great as an antipasti, or as part of a salad or side dish, or even with pasta. If you've never had it, it's different than a lot of Italian food in that it is fairly complex compared to the way most Italian food is prepared. Don't let that discourage you, however. It is delicious. And if you are afraid you won't like it because it is made with eggplant which some people think they don't like, try it anyway. This is a very different kind of eggplant dish with great flavors and contrasts. Here's my recipe:
4-5 baby Italian eggplants or Asian eggplants if you can't find the small Italian variety
olives (pitted and chopped)
golden raisins (optional)
tomato paste and/or tomato sauce
red pepper flakes
red wine vinegar
granulated sugar or honey
First, you must cut the eggplants into a dice about the size of a thumb nail. Then spread the pieces on a raised mesh screen or wire rack with a paper towel underneath it. Sprinkle the pieces with salt and place a sheet pan over them. Then put a few heavy cans or a brick or two in the sheet pan to press on the eggplant pieces. Leave the eggplant for an hour while you assemble the rest of the ingredients and do whatever else you do. During that time, the eggplant will release its liquid onto the paper towel and with it, much of the bitter taste associated with it. After an hour, dry the eggplant pieces in additional paper towels. I have experimented with omitting these steps. In my estimation, it makes a big difference in the way the eggplant tastes.So do it!
To fry the eggplant, you will need a hot pan of oil half extra virgin olive oil and half vegetable oil. Fry the eggplant in batches so it fries quickly and browns in the pan. Remove, drain the pieces and set them aside.Save the oil for another use. Then, saute the onion, celery and garlic till soft in olive oil. The onion and celery together should equal about half the volume of the eggplant. After the onion turns translucent and the celery begins to soften, add the capers, olives and raisins to the pan along with red pepper to taste. Saute for another minute, then add the eggplant back to the pan. Now, add about 2-3 tablespoons of tomato paste or half that amount and a few table spoons of tomato sauce. (The finished dish will resemble a jam or curry, so judge accordingly when you add liquids.)Next, add about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar to the pan and about 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar or honey. You are trying to achieve a sweet and sour taste so at first, be conservative and add more vinegar or sugar as you see fit. Finally, add the secret ingredient: a heaping teaspoon of cocoa which will darken the color and deepen the taste of the dish.
Caponata should be eaten at room temperature over grilled Italian bread as pictured or on crackers or by itself. Please try it. I think if you are not an eggplant eater, you will be happily surprised.