Purple Caponata and My Dinner Party Story

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Japanese Eggplant for Italian Caponata – It’s beautiful skin is part of my purple food adventures.

I like to try new ways to make old dishes. I am also extremely stubborn about creating my own recipes, which is why ironically once a week in my cooking group. I present to you a recipe followed dish created in the kitchen of Marcella Hazan, just to remain humble learning the proper techniques of Italian cooking. I can then bow down to the great cooks before me or change their recipes. So far, I have not changed anything Marcella has suggested. But, today, this is my creation, made on the spur of the moment, sort of.

Eggplants Floating in My Head
All week long I knew I was hosting a birthday party.

I went over the menu in my head…all of his favorites. Manicotti, Italian Sausage and (If I could find a recipe) a from scratch Strawberry Cake. However, I was hoping I would have the time (which I have none of lately) to make his special favorite, Caponata, a Sicilian dish where eggplant is the main ingredient accompanied by celery, vinegar and sugar to accomplish a sweet and sour profile.

It didn’t help that my cake was mixed and then I realized I left out the sugar which I added at the wrong time. Finally, cake in oven, hoping it wouldn’t be grainy, I discover the eggs never made it into the cake. After working I stood in the kitchen on a Friday night making the cake twice , and then proceeded to make manicotti with a very cooperative husband who held each of 42 noodles as I piped the ricotta, thinking why didn’t I make lasagna. Manicotti is for most normal appetites would not be difficult, but for certain men (they know who they are), you must make triple amounts. By 9:00 I collapsed and hadn’t even frosted the cake. And, I must pause to thank my husband for cleaning the kitchen which I think took him three hours.

The next day I made it to the gym, did my usual farmer’s market jaunt, and still in my fantasies, I wanted to surprise our friend with caponata.

My eyes went to the extra large japanese eggplant, and in my mind, I played out the drama of the triple layer cake, the cutting of the carrots, celery and eggplant and a big dish of caponata with bread sitting on the buffet, greeting my guests. Ideally, it should already be made, as the flavors need time to dance together. Ideally, I should use Italian eggplant. And, probably I should look up a recipe, but I wanted to rely on memory of the best caponata I ever ate and that is from Savarinos, a Sicilian family-owned restaurant in Nashville. If I could remember the taste, I could do it. Maria’s is unique and extremely fresh tasting with carrots, celery, capers and olives with just a bit of olive oil, but not swimming in it. She would keep it cold and then warm it up right before serving.

Homemade is best. You can find some very gooey, yucky stuff posing at caponata in jars at the grocery store. This homemade skipped a few traditional ingredients such as vinegar, sugar and onion, but feel free to add those back in if you feel you must.

Caponata is very subjective and made in a variety of ways, and some of that is regional and some of that is ingredient availability. For me, it’s personal taste. I like my caponata very fresh and bright. I either love it or I hate it. If it is too sour and makes my mouth pucker, and vinegar or garlic is all that I can taste, I hate it.

A good caponata is so good, you can eat with a fork and not even need bread. But bread, of course, makes everything better. It’s hard to describe the “right” taste of caponata, because it is a sum of its parts, salty, spicy, sweet, with varying textures in every bite.

The Process
I went to the olive bar to purchase olives at my local grocer and they had changed things on me. The olives were so vinegary, I refused them and opted for something completely different…heavy dark green olives that were briny, but not pickled. Sweet peppers, (not bell) just for an added texture, sweetness and some color. Caponata can suffer from beige/brown coloring, and the carrots and sweet pepper help that out.

It is a bit unusual to use japanese eggplant, but it appeared to require less oil, and it’s a bit sweeter. Did you know that eggplant is considered a fruit?

Give yourself 45 to 60 minutes prep time (includes sweating the eggplant) and then allow to sit for several hours.
The Dinner Party Fantasy Continues
In between the trip to the farmer’s market and the preparation of the caponata, I stopped at the nail salon for a pedicure and an hour in their massage chair. Tommy, the owner saves me Gourmet Magazine and wouldn’t it have a recipe for strawberry ice cream, which took me again into my fantasy, and now I wanted to make that to go with the cake. With four hours left, this seemed impractical, and at the last hour I took the left over strawberry puree and some vanilla ice cream from the freezer and threw it together in the ice cream maker. Semi-homemade. Did I just say that?

The Chihuahua Prays for no more dinner parties
On the way out the door to the market, Jinkie, our long-haired chihuahua, went out on the deck and I remember thinking, better not forget her. Well, four hours later, I didn’t forget her. She was immediately treated to some ice cream.

How did the dinner turn out?
We drank a lot of Tuscan Lemonade and it was a happy, delicious night. Two miles away Retro Rose (my mom) was making mile high lasagna for 16 church ladies for the following day, but she still showed up with sweet tea and lemonade.

I hope to get my manicotti recipe posted some day, as I learned a lot in the process, and the left overs were increasingly delicious, as we ate them for three days.

The cake still needs work, and it has now become my challenge to create the best strawberry cake (from scratch, no box, no jello) that is possible.

The semi-homemade ice cream. Who knew? But, because I’m a bit crazy, I got up the next morning and made plum ice cream for my purple food series. You will want to stay tuned for that.

Recipe for Caponata
6 cups diced eggplant or (4 large Japanese or 2 Italian)
3 cloves garlic, smashed, finely diced
Course salt
Olive oil
1 T butter
2 sweet peppers, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 celery sticks, diced
8 briny dark green olives, cut in half
3 T capers
4 roma tomatoes, seeded, diced
1 t red chile pepper
Trim skin off eggplant, using potato peeler. Cube, toss with salt in a colander and place over a bowl to collect the eggplant’s water. Place a paper towel over eggplant and a heavy pot to weigh down the eggplant, which could sweat up to a cup of water. Sweat for at least 30 minutes.

Heat oil in large frying pan with butter. Add garlic and saute for a minute or two. Add carrots, celery and saute, maintaining texture about 5-6 minutes. Add sweet peppers. Cook for 3 minutes. Add eggplant and continue to saute until eggplant is cooked, but not mushy. Add olives and capers and continue to cook for 3-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, cook for one more minute. Add red chile pepper.
Season with salt pepper to taste.

During the process, you may need to drizzle more olive oil.

Notes: There is no vinegar or sugar in my recipe, as my capers and olives delivered all I wanted to get that perfect pungent flavor, however you can make adjustments as needed. Taste, taste, taste.

Allow to come to room temperature before serving.

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