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.

Pasta alla Norma

I made pasta alla Norma a couple of weeks ago and a Summer would never be complete without having it at least once.

I wrote extensively about this recipe in a previous post which I would invite you to read, if only because I talk about its provenance and history as well as the steps to making it.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/the-diva-pasta-pasta-alla-norma/

img_8756.jpg

The main difference between the way I cooked it then and more recently is that I salted the aubergines before frying them this time.  A little more work, yes, but worth it.

IMG_8755Another difference is that I used onions instead of garlic to make up the tomato sauce.

IMG_8753IMG_8752img_8772.jpgWhat can never be changed is the type of oil with which to fry the slices of aubergine – only extra virgin olive oil can be used for this dish.

IMG_8771Once the pasta was on the boil, it was time to ready the sauce into welcoming it within the confines of a large saucepan.  I began by throwing in some fresh basil and a little olive oil.

IMG_8773

I then poured the sauce in and turned the heat on.

I also grated some Ricotta Salata cheese.  This is a ricotta that has been salted and allowed to age and dry off.  Sorry, I didn’t take a photo.

IMG_8774If you look closely, you can see some white ‘bits’ in amongst the pasta – that is the ricotta salata.  What I did was drain the pasta directly into the saucepan add a little of the cooking water and finish off cooking the pasta there.  Only afterwards did I add the fried aubergine slices (so as not to damage them) and, lastly, the roughly grated ricotta salata – together with extra basil.  I was having a bit of a basil frenzy.

IMG_8776It was a casual outdoor dinner at a friend’s house and she was okay about bringing the pasta to the table in the saucepan.

IMG_8777img_8775.jpgOnce we had plated up, everyone was free to add more ricotta salata to their plate.

Oh … sigh … how I love al fresco meals and Summer in general.

P.S.  It has been the weirdest late July/August ever around here in the Castelli Romani – we’ve had nothing but buckets of rain late in the afternoon.  Not my idea of Summer evenings at all.  But, still, a Pasta alla Normal is an uber-summery pasta dish and is best enjoyed this time of year.

Yuletide Meatloaf with Porcini Mushrooms

Meatloaf, or polpettone as it is known in Italian, must surely rank as the most evocative of home food repasts both in Europe and North America, the embodiment of what a good housewife/mother or grandmother could put together for the family meal.  Wholesome, tasty, comforting and satiating, a meatlof would never aspire to la-di-da but neither would have the better-off classes sneered their noses down at what is basically a huge sausage.  We have all grown so much more sophisticated these past few decades where meals and cuisines are concerned thanks to TV programmes and social media and, let’s face it, a bit of an obsession over eating in general but I would wager that none of us would think it stonkingly out of place if we were to be served a meatloaf at a friend’s house for a meal – slightly out of fashion maybe, like food from the 1970s, or perhaps quaint, but not ‘wrong’ as such.  And that is because there is an intrinsic honesty to a meatloaf; it can’t lie, and there is only so much tweaking that can be apportioned to it upon pain of distorting, misrepresenting and downright perverting its nature.  So let’s hear it for the meatloaf, say I, let’s make it welcome even in the 21st century.  At the same time, and I realise I might be raising a hackle or two in saying so, let us not turn to any Ottolenghi-inspired makeovers, his shopping list alone would be an insult to what a meatloaf is all about.  Simple.  It is not supposed to make an impression or draw attention to itself.

It is supposed to be good, however, of course !  And the version I am about to talk to you about was definitely most enticing, taught to me and members of a group who had the good fortune to be invited to stay at the Casamora Farm for a gastronomy tourism workshop in Tuscany last June.  This farm and holiday destination is famous for many things, including its top notch extra virgin olive oil.  Owned and run by the erudite architect Maurizio Montani Fargna and his delightful energetic wife Matilde Visconti, a lot of historical family blood and background courses through their veins.  The photo below was snapped by Annalee Archie, who wrote about our experience on her tavoladelmondo.com website (see ‘tags’). They were the kindest of hosts and Maurizio a most engaging conversationalist.

casamora-by-lee

They turned to Stefania Barzini and her trusty friend and assistant Paola Colombo to run the cooking classes and I was overjoyed to take part.  What wasn’t there to like?

1

But first a confession.  I am one of the few people in the world who would find meatloaf a challenge.  Indeed, one of my attempts turned out to be an outsized disaster and saw me transmogrifying a meatloaf into a cottage pie, sigh (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/sheepish-in-meatloaf-battle-or-cottage-pie-a-litalienne/).  So the fact that Stefania was going to see us through a meatloaf from scratch was quite a boon.

INGREDIENTS

Dried porcini mushrooms, milk, bread, onions, carrots, good extra virgin olive oil, 1kg minced meat/ground beef, 1 egg, roughly chopped parsely, grated parmesan cheese, freshly ground nutmeg if desired, salt and pepper, flour, wine, plum tomatoes

The first thing to do is soak the porcini in hot water for at least twenty minutes, better still for one hour.  The mushrooms will regain some moisture and the liquid will be impregnated with their taste.

2

Then soak some bread in milk until it has softened but not become too soggy:

53Put the minced meat in a mixing bowl.

6

Add the bread and 1 egg.

7Then add the grated parmesan cheese.

9Add the rougly chopped parsely.

10Add some grated nutmeg (if you like it) and combine the ingredients, using your hands.

11Add salt and pepper last.  That’s it for now.  Stefania and Paola work in unison.

It’s now time to make a simple ‘soffritto’: chop a couple of onions and two carrots and sauté them in a frying pan that will be large enough to hold two meatloaves.

4The olive oil we used was, naturally, Casamora’s own evoo, one of the best in all of Italy.

15Once the onion and carrot have softened (about 5-minutes, you don’t want the onion to brown), you can start adding the porcini mushrooms.

16Remember our meat?  Now is the time to divide it and shape it into two loaves.  Then, using plenty, and I mean plenty, more than one would think!, flour … dredge the loaves so that they are utterly coated in flour.  No skimping !

17And now that the mushrooms have cooked a while, Stefania is about to lower the loaves into the pan.

And here we are: both loaves are in, the flame is a strong one, and a lid is placed on top of the pan.

20After about 10 minutes, off comes the lid, and in goes plenty of wine.  Please note: never sprinkle the wine on top of the meat itself.

21Stefania  makes a little room between the loaves and then turns them over (not as easy as one might think).

22In go two tins of plum tomato passata.  Unlike with the wine, it’s okay to slather the loaves with the tomatoes !

23On goes the lid … and we have to wait a little bit.  By a little bit,  I mean … oh very well, then, I’ll have to own up: I can’t remember how long.  Probably about 20 minutes or so ?

25

Tieta Madia doesn’t mind waiting (https://chivoltailculamilan.com/).

24

Nor do Matilde Visconti (centre) or Annalee Archie (on the right).

26

And then it’s time to pour in some of the water that the porcini mushrooms had steeped in.  Dried porcini mushrooms are notorious for wanting to hang on to the soil they grew in, and there is bound to be some grit in the water.  Better to strain the porcini water through a fine mesh strainer before pouring it into the pan.  And now is the time to banish the lid.  The liquid has to cook down.

27After about another 10 minutes or so (yes, I know, I  know, I am only guessing – but surely I can’t be too off the chronological mark?) …. the sauce has thickened beautifully, the meat is cooked through and all is well in the meatloaf world.

28This is what one of the loaves looked like just before being served.  I wish I had more photos of it on the plate but I was too busy eating and enjoying my lunch by then.

So yes … a humble dish with an aristocratic ingredient, the porcini mushroom, also known as ceps in English.  Not too shabby as a yuletide dish … what do you reckon?