Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sicilian Eggplant Capunata

I'm not exactly sure why I grew up in an eggplant free zone. The first explanation I might toss out would be that my father didn't like it. To be sure, there were damn few things that landed on our dinner table that didn't carry his imprimatur. However, during those years when he was spending several nights a month on the road, my duo dinners with Mama Magel saw all manner of previously rare grocery discoveries. Many of which, most independently minded 10 year olds would have snubbed on principle. Spinach salad, pickled beets, casseroles of any kind - Tuna Noodle, 7 Layer Casserole, Johnny Marzetti (more on that some day), and our shared pleasure, calves liver & onions. All enjoyed with gusto. I suppose it had something to do with rebellion. If Dad hated them, I would love them.

Still, however, no eggplant. So perhaps Dad wasn't the culprit. Which brings us to my second suspicion. Eggplant remains one of the few vegetables not really available canned or frozen, at least not in it's pure state. There were few vegetables that made it to our table without the help of some form of processing. Corn in August and September, green beans round about the same window of opportunity and home grown tomatoes which were pretty much the only thing (other than rose bushes) deemed worthy of planting. From time to time our family might be gifted with some overflow of zucchini from a more agriculturally inclined neighbor which would be quickly dispatched into quick bread, the only approved use of zucchini for Mama Magel.

But to be fair, I think this was pretty much home cooking as we knew it in the center of Ohio circa 1964, until Ms. Julia Child landed in our living rooms and swept out the cobwebs of Middle American kitchens. And although Julia's influence missed Mama Magel by several tablespoons and a generation, I'm proud to report that our kitchen was mostly free of Hamburger Helper, instant mashed potatoes, "Cheez Whiz", frozen pies and other culinary conveniences of the 1960's. I say mostly because of course I pestered Mama Magel into trying them. In the same way I pestered her into buying all those boxes of cereal which I NEVER ate, only so I could capture the prize inside.... Yet frighteningly enough, some of those conveniences stuck! Witness what Gladys christened (and you know I loved her)...

"Quick Spaghetti"

Brown a pound or so of ground beef in a skillet (preferably electric). Add a "Family" size can of Franco American Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce. When hot, transfer to a large bowl. Serve with Kraft Shredded Parmesan and Iceburg Lettuce Salad.

Which brings us to the third possible explanation for the absence of eggplant in my childhood. We just didn't have any Mediterranean neighbors! I couldn't begin to define any of our neighbors ethnicity past "lily white"! Peanut Butter Fudge was about as ethnic as it got. And so it was that the move "home" to Brooklyn was what finally got me thinking about involving myself in a relationship with that big purple bruiser of a veg.

It might well have been a brush encounter with babaganough that made me sit up straight and pay attention to this new flavor possibility. But it was definitely the house made capunata when I worked at "Rosemarie's" in Tribeca that made me submit and worship. That week in Mykonos with the eggplant salad in every restaurant may have cemented the relationship... but then again Mykonos cemented several relationships... (more on that later as well)

Capunata for me, is the sexy, misbehaved brother of ratatouille. Just more bang for the buck shall we say. And my ratatouille can make your knees tremble just a little.
But sugar, this capunata, brings those same knees home to the floor.

This is my version of Capunata, which I enjoy serving very chunky and rustic. The zucchini and celery should still be "al dente". That's my aesthetic. Typically it's served cut smaller and more completely cooked. You find your own capunata bliss and cook accordingly.

Big Mary's Capunata

6 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups eggplant, cut into 1 inch dice
3 cups zucchini, quartered, seeds cut away, & cut into 1/2" - 1 " pieces
2 cups yellow onion, rough cut into 1/2" pieces
4 med cloves garlic, minced
1 cup celery, veins stripped and cut into 1/2" pieces
2 cups red pepper, cut into 1/2" pieces
3 1/2 cups tomatoes, (peeled, seeded and diced) or canned diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons fresh marjoram, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup yellow or black raisins
1 cup chopped black & green pitted olives, very roughly chopped
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
Salt & Pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a large skillet, heat several tablespoons of olive oil. When shimmering hot, add eggplant, season with salt & pepper and cook until browned on most sides. Remove to a bowl.
Saute zucchini in the same manner and add to eggplant in the bowl.
Being careful to not overcook any of the vegetables, saute the onion/garlic mixture and the celery and red peppers in a similar separate manner.

Combine the sauteed vegetables in the bowl. Heat a larger skillet with some remaining olive oil. When hot combine vegetables and add tomatoes and marjoram. Cook over medium heat, just until tomatoes start to break down and "glaze/sauce" the capunata. Then add raisins and olives. Simmer for 3 minutes. Add vinegar and sugar to taste, and cook several minutes to combine flavors. Adjust salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar. Stir in basil and garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Serve room temperature, as a condiment or side dish.

And that, my sweets, is the eggplant that stole and continues to tempt my heart, Make it for a party. The true Italian will search you out. And THAT, is rarely a bad thing.

Remember my pretties, food seduces, so get cooking...
Big Mary