All by its lonesome, eggplant is a pretty shy guy without a whole lot to say. Like shy people the world over, though, put an eggplant anywhere near a food with a big personality, like garlic, capers, or onions, and watch the eggplant quietly absorb style points. Eggplant Parmesan, Greek moussaka, and Mediterranean baba ganoush are delish, but Sicilian caponata really rocks the boat with a powerhouse of flavor and a million ways to make it.
About the only thing that all eggplant caponata recipes share is eggplant, garlic, and vinegar, most often red wine vinegar. Some cooks toss in a few stewed tomatoes, while others insist upon sun-kissed ones warm from the garden. Some cooks, shockingly enough, shrug and say tomatoes are a frill and not essential to the dish at all.
Cooks who consider themselves to be eggplant queens or kings are likely to insist the diced eggplant must be salted, weighted, and drained of the bitter juices that lurk within. Others insist it’s not necessary, given the flavor festival other foods bring to the bowl. Some cooks begin eggplant caponata by frying diced eggplant in a whole lot of oil, while others look askance at such high-calorie practices and primly squirt them with cooking spray. Still other cooks coat the eggplant lightly with fat and let it roast with garlic until it’s been transformed.
Once the caponata has been assembled, combining eggplant and roasted or sautéed tomatoes or raw minced garlic and perhaps a little red onion or green olives, and high notes have been added with a splash or two of wine vinegar and a few capers, it’s time to let the creativity out again. Toasted pine nuts or almonds add crunch, and some water-plumped golden raisins will deepen the yum for some. More traditional, rough-chopped parsley can be replaced by basil, cilantro, or another fresh herb.
Most eggplant caponata recipes insist the flavors must consummate their group marriage overnight and that the dish must be brought to room temperature before serving. While skipping the first point will result is a vinegary eggplant caponata, the second point is poppycock. Caponata served as an appetizer on bruschetta is best if it isn’t too cold, but caponata served hot over quinoa or rice and sprinkled with ricotta salata is a treat. Cold caponata tucked inside a lunchtime pita, dolloped onto a green salad, or eaten like a chunky summer soup is also fabulous.