8.11.2010

When in a Sicilian sailor's tavern...


 

... do as the Sicilian sailors do!  Eat caponata! This past weekend, I made caponata to take to a baby shower and, as I assembled the beautiful ingredients on my cutting board, I thought, 'The perfect post for Wednesday...'  When I started that day, I knew the dish as Sicilian but, other than that, I didn't know much about it.

During my research, I discovered that there are actually several different kinds of caponata, each from a different region of Mediterranean Europe.  Like most folk dishes, there are several varieties of each kind probably due to ingredient availability and regional gardening practices.  The Sicilian variety was said to have been called caponata as it was served in sailors' taverns - or caupone.  And it was eggplant and celery... and green.  Or, it was eggplant and tomatoes and olives... and very red.  Or perhaps it had capers.  I imagine all varieties are quite good in their own right but the one I know and love is the red Sicilian variety of my "ancestry."

My ancestry.  French and English.  Sadly, I am not Italian.  But, like John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda, "Sono italiano in spirito!"  I love Italian food - and the importance of the meal in Italy.  Food is not about sustenance; it is about pleasure.  It is so very important in the Italian culture.  It brings people together for hours each day and that time around the table is what bonds the family - and family of choice.  I feel that I come by my wannabe-Italian-ness naturally.  My godfather, Joseph Tolaro, was Italian, his parents came over from Sicily.  I remember his mother from when I was very young, and each memory of Mamma Tolaro is in the kitchen over a pot of simmering sauce.  (In the photo above, she is on the right and Uncle Joe is behind her.)  Her spaghetti and meatballs are among the best I have ever eaten.  And the aromas... incredibile!  So, while not related by blood, I count the Tolaro family as my own.  "Sono italiano in spirito!"

When visiting Uncle Joe and Aunt Rae every summer when we were children (they are shown above in front of their home in Bellows Falls, Vermont), one of the appetizers served in their living room was caponata with buttery crackers.  But theirs was not the homemade kind - it came from a small Progresso can and was simply called "Eggplant Appetizer."  We all liked it, an odd thing for four boys who probably ate few vegetables.  My mother searched for it in stores but it was not readily available in the suburban supermarkets where we shopped.  So she searched for a recipe and found one, and began to make it herself.  Happily, the recipe she used only improved on the canned stuff, which is still available.  I saw a can the other day at Roma Imports and was tempted to get it, but sometimes it is best not to tamper with memories...

Putting together this dish is a snap - chopping the vegetables, sautéeing them in some good extra virgin olive oil and then mixing in the sauce ingredients for a period of simmering.  It is a very forgiving recipe and the measured amounts are given with a grain of salt.  If I am feeling virtuous (rarely), I will use less olive oil than it calls for.

I have friends who say it would be great on pasta but I can't imagine that, though I am sure it would be fine.  Tradition in our family was to serve it with bread or crackers, or on a bed of lettuce as a first course.

Tutti a tavola e buon appetito!

- David

Caponata

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 large sweet onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound button or cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 small can tomato paste
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (red wine vinegar works, too)
1/2 cup stuffed green olives, cut in half
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a large pot and, when hot, add the eggplant, bell pepper, onion, mushrooms.  Stir to coat the vegetables, reduce heat and cook gently, covered, for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.  Add remaining ingredients (easy on the tomato paste) and simmer, covered, until eggplant is tender and onions are soft - about 20-30 minutes.  If it gets too thick, add a little water while it is simmering.  Chill overnight and serve with bread or crackers, or on a bed of lettuce as a first course.

8 comments:

  1. "Sono italiano in spirito" love that! :)
    I also love the photos of your family that you chose to share with us.
    I agree with your friends that this would be great on top of some pasta. Great recipe David! Wonderful Mediterranean flavors and those pine nuts no top... yum!
    Magda

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  2. Thanks, Magda! Staying "Italian" for this week and playing with wonton wrappers! I love Sundays in the kitchen!

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  3. I go to a restaurant that serves Caponata as a salad. It is made with tuna,green peppers, celery, olives,onions, and lettuce. It seems to be tossed with olive oil and oh my goodness it is so good. Does anyone have that recipe?

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  4. I don't know that recipe, although "caponata" is so different from kitchen to kitchen and country to country. I have started looking and can't find anything - have you considered asking the restaurant (flirt with the server and they will often tattle!) how they make it? Keep us posted!

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  5. Looks good, Might give it a try.
    Rocky Carl Tolaro.

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  6. as a kid in the 60's I remember having caponata as a snack
    (my mom was born of Sicilians,1st generation) by simply
    opening the can, and devouring the contents- without any thought to bread or anything else. and by the way, the progresso site reports no caponata after searching, it seems
    THAT particular caponata is no longer available, but CENTO
    makes one that is quite good. -buona fortuna

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    Replies
    1. Ciao e grazie! It seems that eating from the can was quite popular! I did find Pogresso available online, but (even though the can says 'caponata,' you need to search on 'eggplant appetizer.' I was just told that Sicilians never use mushrooms in their caponata - not sure why this recipe had them, but it seems to work!

      Delete

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