Interior with Eggplants, by Henri Matisse.
Recipe below: Caponata with Lovage, Thai Basil, and Golden Raisins
I confess that my parents stopped making their own caponata when we discovered the version Progresso packed in those pretty little cans. We fell in love. In retrospect, Progresso’s caponata, which they stopped manufacturing only a few years ago, was quite bland compared with homemade, but we were amazed that such an exotic dish even existed in commercial form in this country. It was a fine tribute to the power of the Italian-American community. Caponata was one of those weird foods we’d buy at Italian groceries, like salty, rubbery lupini beans, and hot cherry peppers stuffed with oil drenched tuna. They perplexed my non-Italian friends. For me, life wasn’t complete without them.
But now for decades I’ve made my own caponata. It’s one of those high-aroma cooking experiences you don’t want to miss. Consider cooking up a batch immediately. All the major components, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, are in peak season right now and just waiting for you to harness their powers.
Caponata is of Sicilian origin, one of those full-bodied Spanish- and possibly Arab-inspired dishes with strange ingredients that combine to open up lusciously on the tongue (pasta con le sarde is another). Eggplant is caponata’s anchor, and agrodolce gives it swing. It’s an old dish (tomato being a recent addition), which when done up for high-class Sicilians traditionally included Baroque touches such as chocolate, cinnamon, hard-boiled eggs aged in vinegar, and even baby octopus, anchovies, and clams (now there’s an odd combination). I still make versions that include chopped pear, fennel, and green olives, and I added a touch of cinnamon to my recipe here. I can’t imagine caponata without capers, raisins, and pine nuts (or, more often in my case, almonds or pistachios), a time-honored trio in many Sicilian dishes.
Basil, parsley, and mint are traditional herbs for caponata. But this year, since I’ve fallen hard for lovage, I decided to add that instead. And it makes sense, since celery is almost always a component of the dish and lovage has a strong celery-like flavor. If you don’t have it, use a palmful of celery leaves instead. I liked the idea of underscoring the exotic here. The lovage has hints of curry, and the Thai basil, which I’ve also included, has undertones of clove, so it fits the bill.
How to eat caponata? I don’t care what anyone says, caponata is not ratatouille. It shares basic ingredients, such as eggplant, but the seasoning couldn’t be more different. Its agrodolce boldness steers it toward the antipasto category. I like it served room temperature on toast as crostini. It’s also great served alongside soppressata or capocolla.
A variation on my caponata, this time with pistachios and green olives.
(Serves 6 as an antipasto dish)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 firm medium-size eggplants, unpeeled and cut into small dice
A drizzle of honey (about 1 teaspoon)
A pinch of cinnamon (about ⅛ teaspoon)
1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribbed, and cut into small dice
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar
3 small, inner celery ribs, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves (especially if you don’t have lovage)
A handful of golden raisins, soaked in a few tablespoons of dry Marsala
1 large, round summer tomato, skinned and cut into small dice
2 teaspoons sugar
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
A handful of Thai basil leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
6 lovage leaves, lightly chopped
A big handful of blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Have a large serving bowl ready near the stove. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the eggplant, and sauté until it’s tender but still keeping its shape, about 8 minutes. Season with a little salt and the cinnamon. Add the honey, giving everything a mix. Spoon the eggplant out into the bowl.
Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, add the red pepper and onion, and sauté over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes or so. Add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add this mixture to the bowl with the eggplant.
Add another drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, and then add the celery and celery leaves, sautéing until they just start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the raisins, with their Marsala soaking liquid, and let the Marsala bubble for a few seconds. Add this all to the bowl, and give everything a gentle toss.
Add one more drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, keeping the heat at medium. Add the tomatoes, seasoning them with a little salt. Add the sugar, and sauté the tomatoes for about 2 minutes (you want them to remain red and fresh-tasting). Add the other teaspoon of vinegar, and let it boil for a few seconds. Pour the tomatoes into the bowl.
Add the capers and a few big grindings of black pepper to the bowl. Add the Thai basil, the lovage, and about ¾ of the almonds. Give everything another mix. Taste for seasoning. The caponata should have a gentle, well-balanced sweet-and-sour taste. Add a little more salt if needed to bring all the flavors into focus. Let the dish sit and come to room temperature. Give it another taste, just to check the seasoning. (Dishes taste different at different temperatures, and this one in particular will change flavors as all the various components meld. It might need a little drizzle of vinegar or a bit more black pepper.) Garnish with the remaining almonds and the Thai basil sprigs.