Belle of the Ball

Today’s recipe doesn’t come with a story, just a warning: If you make this eggplant caponata this weekend for a barbeque, or maybe a picnic, or maybe even a college reunion get-together, people will flock to you. You’ll be surrounded, inundated by compliments. It can get embarrassing, and I just want to give you fair warning.

You’ll start getting e-mails from people you didn’t even know you’d met at the party. Maybe they’ll find you through Facebook, maybe they’ll look you up in a Student Directory or Google you. I don’t know how they’re going to find you, but they will. At a certain point, you’ll just keep this recipe on your desktop, or just embed it into your email so you can just send it out without thinking about it.

With great power comes great responsibility, and I feel I’d be setting you up without the warning.

I have Mario Batali to thank for this recipe. It’s his take on the Sicilian eggplant classic caponata. He makes his with an entire tablespoon of hot red pepper flakes, which is much too much for most people. I usually stick to a teaspoon, maybe a second if I’m feeling bold. The last time I made the dish, I accidentally made it with the tablespoon, but saved it by melting about 1/3 cup of chocolate chips into a hot spot in the pan. The chocolate danced perfectly with the cocoa and cinnamon; if you’re curious, I say go for it.

This is one of those dishes whose flavors need to date for a while and get to know each other. If you want to make this for a party on Sunday, I’d suggest making it Saturday, or even Friday night. Like a nice wine or Ray Allen, it just gets better with age.

Every time I cook this, I wonder what it would be like if I steamed the eggplant first. If you do end up steaming yours, please let me know how it turned out. I cook it for much longer than Mario suggests, softening things as much as I can. He calls for ¾ cup of basic tomato sauce; I’ve discovered that a box of Pomi marinara sauce works perfectly.

Eggplant Caponata (Caponata di Melanzane) Adapted from Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large Spanish onion, cut into ½ inch dice

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons pine nuts

3 tablespoons dried currants

Up to 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (I salt the eggplant to remove the bitterness while I scurry around the kitchen prepping the onion and gathering my spices. Be sure to rinse the salt off before cooking.)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

¾ cup basic tomato sauce, or 1 box Pomi marinara sauce

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. In a 10-to-12 inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, currants and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened and translucent, around 15 minutes.
  2. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa and cook until the eggplant has softened. Sometimes it takes as much as 20 minutes for it to lose its firmness. Just keep on stirring it to make sure it doesn’t stick and brown.
  3. Add the thyme, tomato sauce, and vinegar and bring to a boil.
  4. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Bring to room temperature before serving.

When you bring it to the party, serve it on crostini, or some slices of baguette. I also enjoy tossing it with some pasta and making it into a meal.

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11 thoughts on “Belle of the Ball

  1. My family would go crazy for this, I know it! Will definitely give this recipe a try and I think I might cook the eggplant first. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. This has been one of my favorite recipes for years – and I agree with you, it’s always a huge hit! Funny you mention the tablespoon of red pepper, I also always cut it back to a teaspoon or two. I’ve always wondered if that was a typo, because as someone who likes spicy food, even I feel that the whole tbsp overwhelms the other flavors.

  3. My husband is not a fan of eggplant, so I am always looking for new and creative ways to make it more appealing. I am intrigued by the cocoa powder in this yummy looking recipe!

  4. I made this, and everyone loved it. – definitely my new caponata recipe. This week you happily reminded me of thai spring rolls; makin’ the blog above tomorrow.

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