Eggplant and More Eggplant

It is eggplant season and if you are one of those lucky enough to be able to grow them you may be looking for new ideas. Here are two salad type recipes from Sicily that can be made ahead of time and will last for several days in the refrigerator.

The first, caponata, is a classic Sicilian staple, originally used as a way to preserve eggplant for the winter months. I don’t know if this particular recipe really has enough vinegar to make it last beyond a normal shelf life, and haven’t had the opportunity to find out as it disappears within days. This recipe, based on Simeti’s in “Sicilian Food”, also includes unsweetened cocoa. She explains that it was a Spanish addition that she prefers to leave out as her “personal preferences run to things more simple”. Generally not one to hesitate when adding unusual ingredients, I did think twice before dumping a tablespoon of cocoa in my beautiful caponata, potentially ruining one of my favorite dishes. I was pleasantly surprised that while the cocoa added a hint of cocoa flavor it did not overpower the dish and added a nice unexpected depth of color and flavor that mellowed and improved the next day.

Sweet and Sour Eggplant
Caponata
Based on the recipe by M. T. Simeti in “Sicilian Food”

2 large eggplants (about 2 ½ – 3 pounds) cut into 3/4 cubes, salted and left to drain for 1 hour
Olive oil for frying
1 medium onion, chopped**
6 stalks celery, sliced – not too thin**
½ cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped**
½ cup capers, rinsed and drained
1 ½ c tomato sauce***
½ c white wine vinegar
2 T sugar
2 T unsweetened cocoa – optional
1/3 c toasted almond slivers – for garnish

This recipe can be easily halved

** Traditionally caponata is made with bigger chunks of vegetables: onions sliced not chopped, 1 inch pieces of celery, and olives left whole. I personally like a finer texture and therefore chop the vegetables. If you do use 1 inch chunks of celery, be sure to blanch them for a minute in boiling water before adding them to the onions.

*** You can make your own tomato sauce, recipe in Pasta with Eggplant and Tomato, or use a plainer commercial flavor of pasta sauce such as tomato and basil.

After the eggplant has been salted and drained for an hour, thoroughly rinse and dry it well, squeezing it in paper towels or a clean dish towel. Brown it well in a bit of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. This is best done in batches as to not overcrowd the eggplant and prevent it from browning. Also, how much olive oil is up to you as eggplant will soak up just about every drop you put in the pan. Drain the browned eggplant on paper towels while you prepare the other vegetables.

Sauté the onion and celery in olive oil over medium heat until the onion begins to brown and the celery starts to get soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add the olives, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar and cocoa (if using). Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and simmer for another 10 minutes to combine the flavors. Correct the salt. It may not need any additional salt as the eggplant, capers and olives are already salty. Let sit for a few hours before serving to meld and mellow the flavors, or refrigerate and serve the next day, cold or at room temperature.

This next recipe I just had to try because it calls for boiling the eggplant whole. It also uses mint and oregano for a different flavor profile.

Eggplant and Onion Salad
‘Nsalata di milinciani e cipuddi
Based on the recipe by G. Coria in “Sicily, Culinary Crossroads”

1 large eggplant (about 1 ½ lb)
1 medium onion, left whole
3 T olive oil
3 T white wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, chopped fine or pressed through a garlic press
1 T fresh oregano leaves, chopped fine
1 T fresh mint leaves, chopped fine
Salt to taste

Cut off the top of the eggplant and peel the onion. Place both in a large pot of boiling water and let cook for about ½ hour until the eggplant is thoroughly cooked. The skinny end near the stem is the last part to get soft. Drain and let cool. Meanwhile In a bowl big enough to hold the finished salad, mix the dressing by whisking together the olive oil and vinegar and then adding the fresh herbs, garlic and salt. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle easily, peel and cut the eggplant into about 1 inch chunks. Chop the onion coarsely. Toss the vegetables in the dressing and correct the salt. Let the salad sit for several hours to combine the flavors, tossing frequently.

A note about boiling eggplant whole. Eggplant floats and is not so easy to keep under the boiling water. If the pot is fairly full you can use the weight of the lid to keep the eggplant under the water. The result is a soft texture, similar to roasting it in an oven for 45 minutes.

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