Eggplant Caponata is a classic Sicilian dish made with eggplant, olives, tomatoes, celery and lots of other flavorful ingredients. It's a cooked salad or relish with a sweet and sour flavor, known as "agrodolce" in Italian.
My garden is exploding with eggplant right now, which is funny, because it's just about the only thing it's exploding with. Typically this time of year I've got tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and more coming out of my ears. While I've gotten a few cukes, a decent amount of chilies, and of course there are still tomatoes, my garden has seen far better seasons. I chalk it up to a few things: a late start, an excitable yet destructive puppy, as well as a complete and utter lack of time and attention.
I always throw a few eggplant seedlings in the ground, but they never usually produce more than a couple fruits each. This year, however, for a reason unbeknownst to me, my eggplants are performing better than anything else in the garden, and better than they ever have. Had I known, I would have planted more than two, but the garden is funny like that. Always full of surprises.
I love eggplant. It's one of my favorite summer vegetables because it's so versatile and meaty. You can serve it as a side or make a whole meal out of it, like with eggplant parm or moussaka. In the case of eggplant caponata, it becomes a multitude of different things - a salad, a side dish or a condiment. It's wonderful slathered on a piece of toasted or grilled bread, as part of a big antipasto spread, as an accompaniment to grilled meats and fish, or eaten hurriedly right out of the container with the fridge door open. As much as I'd like to admit to eating it in a more sophisticated manner, the latter always seems to be the way I enjoy it most frequently.
I first made eggplant caponata when I was a student at LSU and my Italian class threw a "festa"on campus. Most parties in Louisiana revolve around food, so it made perfect sense for this one to be a potluck. I decided to make caponata to honor my Sicilian roots, and I was really proud of how it turned out. I remember standing around the party, when my professor came up to me and said, "YOU made the capponata? It's WONDERFUL." She was a tough, brutally honest Italian woman, so hearing this was incredibly validating. I was still a very novice cook at the time, and it gave me a lot confidence in my abilities.
Fast forward a few years and I started making caponata again, but I could never get the recipe quite right. I had zero recollection of how I made it for my Italian class, and I made numerous attempts to get what I was after with little luck. Then one day I saw a recipe for caponata appear on Smitten Kitchen, which had been adapted from a recipe in Saveur magazine. These were both sources that I knew and trusted - so I had to give it a try. Bingo. This was exactly the caponata I'd been searching for.
I made a few of my own changes, naturally. Caponata is one of those dishes that's made differently by just about everyone depending on their own personal preferences. For me that means adding garlic, no peppers, using garden-grown tomatoes instead of canned, my favorite castelvetrano olives, and a few extra pine nuts. I also opt to bake the eggplant rather than fry it, because it's a thousand times easier and works just as well.
Caponata captures the essence of late summer so well. It's sweet and sour - what they call "agrodolce" in Italian, but it's also salty, smooth, creamy, crunchy, and really just so satisfying in every way. The recipe makes quite a bit, so I like to keep it on hand for easy snacking and jazzing up quick, flavorful meals. This is by no means what I'd consider a difficult recipe - it's a rustic, peasant dish after all - but it can be a bit time consuming to make. Don't let that deter you - it's absolutely worth the effort.
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