Caponata: The Perfect Eggplant and Tomato Dish
Local kitchen whiz and nonprofit leader Todd Owens shows us his favorite recipe in The House Special.
It’s that time of year: Tomatoes are coming, and we can’t get enough. We can them, we freeze them, we cook them, we eat them raw. Tomatoes are the quintessential summer vegetable. Er, fruit.
Maybe not quite as popular — but just as in-season — is eggplant (which also is a “fruit”). It’s coming in your CSA box, growing in your garden and the market is replete with it. Cooking an eggplant is not that easy if you want to keep the crop healthy. Stir-frying it requires some finesse, as it tends to absorb all the oil and you end up with a cloggy mess. You also do not want to undercook it because then you will have texture issues — this is why some people hate eggplant. Much like overcooked broccoli, people have had too many bad experiences.
That’s why I was so happy to make this recipe with my friend Todd Owens, one of the leaders in our city’s very active nonprofit community. He co-founded Nonprofit Talent to support nonprofits in complex change situations. He also is one of the most active volunteers in the community and the board chairman of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service. When he’s not outdoors, he is one of my favorite people in the kitchen — always with a new thing up his sleeve.
I love this recipe because it’s the most foolproof way to cook eggplant. And combined with tomatoes and all the other wonderful things in this recipe, you cannot go wrong.
Caponata is a traditional Italian dish with many variations, depending on which region you’re in. I love it because you can serve it many ways — starting with slopping it up with some good bread and wine. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it as bruschetta topping or even as a side with pilaf or over pasta. It’s very savory — and it’s one of the most umami-filled tomato dishes I have ever had. Best of all, it’s easy to cook big batches for a crowd or save for later. In fact, it’s better the day after. And you can serve it at room temperature, so it’s perfect for picnics or buffets. What more could you ask for?
Try it this weekend and make a dent in some of that tomato and eggplant bounty!
PHOTO BY LEAH LIZARONDO
Recipe by Todd Owens
Makes 6-8 servings
· 6 cups eggplant (skin on), cubed in ¾-inch size
· 2 tablespoons salt (kosher preferred)
· 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
· 1 medium yellow, white or sweet onion
· Lots of garlic (1/2 head)
· ¼ teaspoon fresh thyme
· ¼ teaspoon crushed, dried red pepper
· 2 cups diced red tomatoes (or use San Marzano or other canned tomatoes)
· ¼ cup golden raisins
· 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
· 2 teaspoons honey
· ¼ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
· 2 teaspoons capers
· Chiffonade of fresh parsley and mint leaves (and possibly oregano) for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grab 1-2 large baking sheets and ensure that the racks in your oven are spaced properly to accommodate them.
2. Wash the eggplant and cube it into ¾-inch pieces. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with nearly all of the salt (save 1 ½ teaspoons for later) and toss to coat.
3. Over the sink, pour the salt-coated eggplant into a wire/mesh veggie wash insert, pasta strainer or colander. Let it sit for 30 minutes.
4. During this 30 minutes of downtime, you can pour yourself a glass of wine or get busy chopping the veggies.
5. Peel and cut the onion into ¼-inch dice. Smash and chop the garlic. Chop the tomatoes into ½-inch dice.
6. Once 30 minutes has transpired, do not rinse eggplant. Pour right back in mixing bowl and coat with 4 tablespoons of olive oil; toss.
7. Spread the eggplant onto 1 or 2 baking sheets and put them in the oven. After 20-25 minutes, open the oven and give them a shake. Feel free to toss or turn the eggplant if you like. The eggplant is done after 45-60 minutes, when it is spongy and golden brown. Pull the cooking sheets out and let the eggplant cool. Once cool, transfer to serving bowl (or the mixing bowl you used to toss and coat with oil).
8. In a stainless or nonstick frying or sauté pan (large enough for all of the ingredients), heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the onion, thyme, red pepper flakes, garlic and the 1 teaspoon of salt and sauté for 8-10 minutes.
9. Add the tomatoes (juice and all) and another 1 teaspoon of salt. Heat and stir. Then add the honey, raisins, black pepper and vinegar. Stir to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes and allow to thicken.
10. Pour this hot mixture over the cooked eggplant and stir to incorporate everything together. Let rest and cool for about 1 hour.
11. Serve at room temperature or reheat before serving. Top with fresh parsley, oregano and/or mint.