Caponata is a vegetarian dish that’s centered around eggplant and fresh, harvested vegetables. It’s a celebration of produce and on the palate obtains a melding of fresh, salty, and sweet flavors that truly makes it a celebration for your taste buds as well. It is satisfying, refreshing and delicious.
It’s a dish that can be served cold, at room temperature or warm, and it can be an appetizer, side dish or main course. It’s difficult for me to think of another dish that is as versatile as caponata, especially since it can thrill you on a paper plate in the yard or served on fine china at the table.
My favorite way to serve caponata is at room temperature as an appetizer. When served at this neutral temperature, the medley of flavors in this dish is on full display. Each ingredient still bears its unique flavors while contributing to the whole.
As for a wine pairing, I like to go with a wine that can stand up to the vibrant acidity of caponata. Remember that this dish has a sweet and sour profile and could be overwhelming next to a new world-styled wine. However, it’s also a dish that showcases the finessed yet sometimes fragile flavors of fresh vegetables, so it wouldn’t stand up well to a heavy-handed red. Lastly, I want a wine that will augment the flavors of the caponata. On this occasion, I went with a small-production boutique producer from California, who is experimenting with Italian varietals and combining their old-world characteristics with the ripe flavors of California fruit, and a producer from northern Italy making one of my favorite summertime rosés out of Nebbiolo.
The Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo Colline Novaresi Il Mimo 2015 was the color of a gorgeous deep-red rose with forest floor, intense cranberry, red florals and chalk dust on the nose. The palate was smooth, juicy and almost a little sweet with cherry, strawberry fruit, dried orange and a hint of spice. It was very enjoyable and thirst-quenching, providing fruity contrasts to the earthiness of the caponata’s eggplant.
The Massican Annia 2014 is a wine that you really need to give the proper attention to. It’s a blend of 45% Tocai Fruiliano, 32% Chardonnay, and 23% Ribolla Gialla, with a nose that was at first restrained, showing a beautiful bouquet of green apple, white flowers, wild herbs, and a bit of lemon. The palate displayed vibrant and forward acidity, which enriched it’s flavors of green apple, citrus, and wet stone, with minerality that carried well into it’s fresh citrus finish. This wine was a pleasure to drink as its brisk acidity kept your palate perfectly tuned in for another bite of caponata.
The most important thing is to use the best quality ingredients. This dish doesn’t mask a thing. Instead, it amplifies the flavors of each ingredient, and that’s part of its magic. Many recipes will tell you to peel the tomatoes, but in this case we’re using grape tomatoes for visual appeal and their bittersweet flavor. You could also use plum or vine tomatoes, in which case you should blanch and peel them.
- 3 – 4 Italian eggplants, about 2 pounds (or look for a mix of colors; smaller is better)
- salt and pepper, as needed
- grape seed oil, for frying
- 4 – 5 stalks of celery, large dice
- 4 tbls extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, small dice
- 1 cup green Italian olives, sliced in half with pits removed
- 1 pound of grape tomatoes, sliced in half with seeds removed
- 2 tbls of capers, rinsed
- 7 tbls of red wine vinegar
- 2 tbls of sugar
- 1 loaf Italian bread, to serve
- 1 bunch fresh basil, to serve
1. Slice the eggplant crosswise into ¾-inch slices. Line a sheet pan with paper towels and a cookie rack. Coat both sides of each eggplant slice generously with salt and place on the rack. The salt will pull the bitter flavors out of the eggplant. Allow the eggplant to sit like this for one hour. Then rinse the eggplant well, and dry.
2. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. At the same time, place a large sauté pan over a medium flame and pour enough grape seed oil in to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is hot, place the eggplant into the sauté pan. (Be careful not to overcrowd the pan. You may need to fry the eggplant in two batches.) Fry the eggplant on one side until golden brown and then flip to achieve the same sear on the other side. Once both sides have been cooked, remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.
3. Set up a small ice bath. Place the large dice of celery into the salted boiling water. Blanch for three to four minutes or until the color becomes a deep vibrant green. Pull the celery from the pot and place into the ice bath for no more than one minute. Then drain and set aside.
4. Cut the eggplant slices into large dice with a very sharp knife; remember they are soft from being fried, and make sure to keep the skin on the eggplant.
5. At this time you are ready to begin the final assembly of the dish. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add enough olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Once hot, add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Allow the onions to cook for three minutes. Add the olives, tomatoes and celery and stir together. Allow to cook for another five minutes.
6. Now add the eggplant, capers, vinegar and sugar. Stir the contents of the pan together well and allow to cook for 10 minutes.
7. Taste for seasoning, and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
8. Move the entire contents of the pan to a serving dish.
If you are looking to serve this at room temperature, allow the dish to sit for up to an hour before serving. To serve hot, allow only ten minutes. To serve cold, place it in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
No matter what temperature you are aiming for, when ready to serve, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Slice the Italian bread into ¼-inch slices, brush both sides with extra virgin olive oil and place on a parchment-lined baking dish. Put in the oven for five minutes to toast slightly. Chop the fresh basil and add to the caponata; stir to combine.
You can serve the caponata plated out with the toasts, or serve it family-style.
Article, tasting notes, photos and recipe by: Eric Guido