Friday, February 9, 2007

Eggplant Caponata

My father-in-law, Ralph Johnson, was an artist and art teacher. He was one of the very early faculty members of the art department at UC Davis , teaching there from 1957 until his retirement in 1988.

Besides being a wonderfully whimsical painter and sculptor, he was an excellent cook. One of the many dear things about him that cemented our relationship early on, I'm sure.

The first time I met him, he had invited Clay and his "new girlfriend" (that would be me) over for dinner and served us steaming bowls of succulent crab cioppino accompanied by hot, crusty French bread. Not only did I fall in love then and there with both the man and his cooking, my culinary bar was raised a number of notches.

We delighted in cooking and sharing meals, talking over glasses and bottles of wine and I am glad for the years I spent in his company.

One evening he prepared a Sicilian caponata (an eggplant based anti-pasto dish) which delighted my taste buds so much, I begged to have the recipe. He copied it from the cookbook on his kitchen counter (I cannot remember which cookbook it was) and to this day I have it tucked away in my old yellow plastic recipe box, hand written on yellow lined paper, sporting a tomato stain.

Ralph passed away a number of years ago so please don't think this is a eulogy to recent loss. It's just that when I found the beautiful eggplants at my grocers I remembered that I had his caponata recipe and decided to finally give it a try. All these years and I hadn't made it once.

I suppose you could say I followed the recipe, in that I used eggplant, onions, tomatoes, golden raisins and capers, but there the similarity stops. Given my whimsy and what was on hand in the cupboards, the end product is a very different yet tasty beast, as was confirmed by the "beach nighters" who gobbled it up this evening.

Eggplant Caponata

Christine's original recipe* (with inspiration from and with loving memories of Ralph)
2 pounds of whole eggplants, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and left whole
Kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil for the pan
1 cup coarsely chopped sweet onions
14 1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes - I used Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted
12 of Kalyn's Slow Roasted tomatoes, skins removed and coarsely chopped (or use sundried tomatoes, about 1/3 cup chopped)
2 heaping tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 heaping tablespoons coarsely chopped toasted almonds (I was out of pine nuts, which is traditional)
1 packet Splenda sweetener or 1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Zest of a Meyer lemon
Juice from the above Meyer lemon - about 2 tablespoons

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Drizzle a large roasting pan with olive oil to coat the bottom.
Add the eggplant cubes and the whole garlic cloves and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Using your hands, mix well, adding more olive oil if the eggplant seem dry. Eggplant drinks olive oil and then releases some of it later in cooking so don't go overboard on this step. About 1/4 cup total should be sufficient.
Cover the pan with foil and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the eggplant is soft.
Remove the foil and continue roasting until the eggplant is golden brown and tender to the bite. Don't allow it to burn or stick to the pan. Frequent shaking of the pan may be necessary.
Remove the eggplant from the oven and allow to cool.
Meanwhile, add a bit of olive oil to a large heavy pot set over medium heat.
Add the chopped onions and saute gently until softened but not browned.
Add the diced tomatoes, the slow roasted or sundried tomatoes, the raisins, capers, sugar or Splenda and the allspice and stir to blend.
Add the eggplant mixture to the pot, stir again and cook gently for about 15 minutes until the caponata is soft, aromatic and thickened.

Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts, lemon zest and juice. Adjust the seasonings if necessary, but I don't think you'll have to.

Eggplant Caponata is my offering for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by its founder Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen. Kalyn will be posting her roundup on Monday. Read how to join in the fun here.

Cook's Notes:
This is best served at room temperature with good whole wheat crackers or crusty artisan bread. If you have to refrigerate it, bring it out early enough before serving so it can warm up a bit.

Thanks to Bill and Erika for the inspiration to use Meyer lemon juice instead of the more traditional red wine vinegar. It was one of those "Ah-ha's" that truly makes this dish sparkle.

Edited on 2-11-07: *I've struck out the word 'original' here because, on thinking it over, I did not invent caponata, I simply made a different version of it. For more information on the dish and its origins, please click on these links.