How to Hack a Caponata di Melanzane: Sweet and Sour Aubergine Recipe

I think the best way to hack a caponata is to get someone else to make one for you but he or she has to be trustworthy.  A caponata made without love can be a very disappointing affair.  I am not a goody goody, by the way, and rely on tricks and tips and short-cuts to make life run more smoothly, but when it comes to certain dishes there can be no cutting of corners.

I started out well enough, in an Eiffel Tower kind of way.

IMG_9474I cut up some aubergines/eggplant into chunks, sprinkled salt over them and placed a plate and weight over them to help their inner liquid demon ooze out more readily. By the way, the Le Creuset-type cast iron saucepan you see?  Slightly battered.  So sad, I dropped it the other day and was on the brink of throwing it away but just couldn’t find the heart to do so because it had belonged to my Swedish grandmother and so it is easily close to being 100 years old.  It can continue to be used in other ways.

IMG_9476IMG_9477I had left the aubergines to sweat for at least an hour and this is how much ‘stuff’ they released.

 

Time to rince the aubergine chunks thoroughly, to rid them of the salt.

IMG_9480Time to squeeze the water out of them.  This can be a bit of a pallaver so another good hack is to find an obliging husband to do this manly job for you.

Now the whole point of salting the aubergines is to make frying them a happy affair: they will not absorb too much oil and their texture will be more pleasing.  So, give yourself brownie points for not skipping this important step.

Off I went out then and did whatever it was I went out to do BUT I took an awful long time doing it.  Hence,  when I came home, it was late and supper had to be made and I was tired and was in no mood for frying these aubergines. Which is what is required of a true, proper Caponata di Melanzane. After a bit of head scratching and huffing and puffing and chiding myself for wanting to attempt a caponata on a busy day, I decided to go maverick.  Be a caponata iconoclast! I told myself.

IMG_9481I lay the chunks on a pyrex dish and dribbled some nice olive oil and sprinkled a little bit of  salt and … yes, you guessed it.  I put them in the oven to cook.  (Where’s that icon for the palms of both hands resting on both cheeks in a show of amazement?).  UNHEARD OF!

IMG_9484They cooked in the oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes.

IMG_9504When they cooled down, I covered them in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge.  I was exhausted and went to bed.

THE NEXT DAY

img_9584.jpgI placed 4 tablespoons of sugar in a small pan and poured white wine vinegar to cover it by more than 1 inch.  Cook the vinegar until the sugar melts and set aside.

img_9581.jpgChop up some onions and cook over a low heat.  Add a bit of salt as well as sugar.IMG_9585When the onions have gone golden ..

IMG_9586Add some very good-quality Italian plum tomatoes.  A caponata is best made with sweet fresh tomatoes but I didn’t have any on me.  I used a pair of scissors to chop ’em directly in the saucepan.  This is the ‘salsa’ that we are preparing, and it should cook for about 15-20 minutes.

IMG_9587Celery.  Celery is an integral part.  Pare the celery stalks, cut them up and blanch them in some salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.

img_9588.jpgAlso – but I don’t have any photo – rinse some salt dried capers over and over again, and have them at the ready.

IT ALL COMES TOGETHER

Add the celery and cook for a couple of minutes.

IMG_9590IMG_9591The sauce was getting a little thick and now was the right time to pour in the sweetened vinegar.  Sorry, no photo of me pouring it in.

IMG_9592Then in go the baked aubergines.

IMG_9593Lots of fresh basil.  Combine all the ingredients.  Job done, the heat can be turned off.

IMG_9594One last thing.  Toast some pine kernels.

img_9595.jpgOnce it had all cooled down, I put the caponata in a glass container in the fridge.  So the great thing about this recipe is that it can be prepared in advance.

IMG_9652We were getting ready for an outdoor grill with family, at my in-laws’ house in the Marche and the caponata took pride of place where the vegetable side dishes were concernerd.

IMG_9653I stuck some more fresh basil in the middle.

SSSI9783And everyone said the caponata tasted lovely.

I, being a fusspot, continue to prefer the fried version.  But it’s good to know that the next best thing is the oven approach.

I don’t know whether you are acquainted with Frank Fariello? If not, you should definitely check out his super blog “Memorie di Angelina”.  Bless him, he wrote the following comment on a recent post I had written:

“Lighter it may be but never as good.” Amen, I say, to that. I’ve tried various light version of parmigiana and they’re invariably disappointing. Nothing like the original recipe, heavy as it may be. I remember my grandmother dipped her eggplant slices in flour and egg as well. Made the dish even heartier but boy was it heavenly!

 

We’re on the same page Frank and I … I am a fried-food-fanatic! But, if you don’t like the idea of frying, this oven cooked aubergine caponata will do very well indeed, I promise.

Patience Permitting, a Parmigiana di Melanzane Most Fitting

My friend Libby, with help from our friend Sandy, prepared a wonderful aubergine/eggplant gratin for our lunch in the Umbrian countryside towards the end of last September (i.e. in 2017).  It was a lovely sunny day, one that allowed us to enjoy the al fresco backdrop to it all, served over what was once an olive millstone.

IMG_0598As we tucked into the dish, we commented appreciatingly about it and drew similarities to the classic Parmigiana di Melanzane.

IMG_0600

Sandy was quite amazed at how much oil the sliced rounds of aubergine guzzled as she pan fried them.  For the rest, it was a fairly simple dish to prepare.  The sauce was made with chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and the layers were showered with grated parmesan.  They are then cooked in the oven until done. Fresh basil added at the very end.  And more parmesan can be added to the serving on the individual dish.

Instead, a Parmigiana di Melanzane, a proper one that is, ranks top of the list in the High Maintenance Category of summer recipes.  Which is why it is so highly appreciated at the dinner table when a friend or family member serves it and, also, why it can be the cause of much gustatory disappointment when it doesn’t live up to its standards.  There can be no cheating when it comes to a good Parmigiana di Melanzane, although variations are admitted (see two links at the bottome of this post).  And that means that the slices must be fried in olive oil and not ‘cooked’ in the oven (roasted).  When I overhear comments like “Oh, the roasted/grilled version is much lighter and just as good”, I turn my eyes heavenwards or allow myself an inward groan.  Lighter it may be but never as good.

The parmigiana di melanzane comes with not a little baggage when it comes to both historical fact and conjecture (not to mention nonsense).  Dishes were cooked “alla parmigiana” (i.e. cooked with parmesan and inside a dish that could be placed in an oven) well before aubergines even arrived in Italy.  The Latin word “parma” means a shield – and the way the sliced aubergines are set out in the dish does indeed resemble a short of ‘shield’ – so much so that an emiment Italian food historian, Massimo Montanari, reckons that could  be behind the naming of the dish.  The recipe most likely originated in Naples whose rulers were also those of Sicily until Italy became a nation in 1861 – and that would explain why both lay claim to the orgin of this recipe.

I think I’ll just get on with it now and leave history behind for a bit.

1This is how I prepped the aubergines/eggplants – I took a lot of skin off.34I sliced them length-wise and sprinkled plenty of salt over them.

5I placed the slices between two large plates.7I put a heavy saucepan over the plates, to squeeze the aubergine slices and help rid them of whatever liquid in them makes them slightly bitter.9This was quite the tower I created in the kitchen, eh!, what do you think!10It didn’t take long for the aubergines to start ‘perspiring’.11So much so, that quite a lot of liquid started trickling out.121314I had left (if I remember correctly) the aubergines to sweat away for one hour – and then threw away the liquid and put the slices of aubergine to rinse in a tub of cold water.  I then patted them dry, or as dry as I could.

While all that was going on, in the meantime, I was making the tomato sauce, with fresh tomatoes.  It was the  height of Summer after all when tomatoes are at their best.

1516Get hold of the sweetest tomatoes you can lay your  hands on, cut them in half, cut an onion in  half, sprinkle plenty of salt and add a few basil leaves.

17Turn the heat on and cook for about 20 minutes.

18

19Use a food mill to strain the tomatoes.19aDon’t throw the watery bit away – you can use it in another sauce. Or make a Bloody Mary with it!20Our sauce can be cooked down now.  Add some olive oil.21Cook away, add some salt, taste, add a pinch of sugar if you think it needs it.  Set aside.

Time to start frying.

22Pour plenty of olive oil into your frying pan.

23.jpg24.jpgDry the slices of aubergine as much as you can – and then get frying.252627This is the busy bit: the aubergines being fried in batches, then left to drain on a colander.  But it gets exciting too!  Notice how little oil drips off the fried aubergines? See below.

27a

Time to start assembling.  The hard part is over.

28.jpgSpoon some sauce onto the bottom of a baking dish – not a lot.

29

Place one layer of aubergines, some mozzarella, plenty of grated parmesan.  Regarding the mozzarella: cut it up and put it in a colander/sieve for about one hour before use.  That will help to dry it out.30

31Add some tomato sauce: not too much.32Repeat until you finish all the aubergines.  Add one last dolloping of the tomato sauce on top, as well as some more olive oil.  Bake in an oven at 200°C for about an 40-45 minutes (maybe less? I can’t remember, sorry – but you’ll see when it’s ready).

33

A parmigiana di melanzane is best eaten at room temperature.

Yes, it does take a lot of time and there is quite a lot of fuss.  But, maybe, once a year? Is it worth it?  Of course it is.

Below are the links I  mentioned earlier on, that are a variation on the theme … These other two recipes were also good, by all means, but this one ranks highest in my opinion. And I suppose I can put that down to the salting of these nightshades, these shady aubergines/eggplants.

(1)  https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/window-slats-and-the-naming-of-a-dish-la-parmigiana-di-melanzane/

(2) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/seasonally-incorrect/