Sunday, August 27, 2017

Eggplant Caponata

One of my great regrets from the years that I spent working in a professional kitchen is that I didn't very often take the time to write down exact recipes. Most of the "recipes" from my line cook days are nothing more than a list of ingredients (often with no amounts).  If I'm lucky, I will discover that I wrote down a few cursory words to indicate method and order.  I just never thought I would ever forget how to make so many things.  I made them over and after day...until I could make them in my sleep.  How could I forget?  Such is the optimism of youth.

Occasionally I will get a bee in my bonnet to reproduce something I remember making.  I will spend a little time rooting through my files (to see what I actually wrote down)....and I will poke around on line...and thumb through my cookbooks.  I almost never manage to replicate a dish exactly.  But I almost always end up with something well as a renewed appreciation for a particular preparation. 

Caponata is one of these things.  I made it regularly for a while when I was the sauté cook (I think it accompanied Swordfish...but I'm really not sure at this point).  If you are not familiar with Caponata, it is a Sicilian eggplant preparation.  I remembered the one we made at the restaurant as being very simple, containing nothing more than eggplant, onions, celery, capers and olives (and olive oil for sautéing).  I love Mediterranean eggplant dishes...and the salty and tangy aspect of this one appealed to me very much. 

In the years since, every time I have run across caponata, I have noted that it contains tomato.  This seemed "wrong" to me, but I didn't think too much about it because with all the wonderful eggplant dishes out there, I never had a particular reason to stop and sort out if my memory was faulty...or if there were 'authentic' versions of caponata that did not include tomato.

Recently, however, I needed to prepare caponata for a client, so I began to look into it.  I discovered I actually had a recipe of sorts in my files from my restaurant days.  It did not include any tomato.  And as luck would have it, it was one of those bare bones recipes I alluded to above.  So I at least had a starting point.

It was written down as follows:

Small diced onion (2 c.)
Small diced celery (1 c.)
Small diced eggplant (6 c.)
Chopped black olives (niçoise/provençal)

Sweat onion and celery 'til just translucent.  Add eggplant and cook 'til it just cooked through.  Pull off heat and toss in olives and capers.  Season to taste with Salt & pepper.  Do not overcook.


As always, I began to look around at other recipes.  And, as I did, I found that one of the essentials in caponata does happen to be tomato.  Furthermore, one of the hallmarks of the dish is its sweet/sour counterpoint (agrodolce)...which the recipe of my notes definitely lacks.  I can only assume that the remainder of the dish I made at the restaurant included the other essential elements, and that the 'caponata' I was making at the time had been deconstructed on the plate in some way.

The caponata I finally made for my clients did draw heavily on my old notes in the sense that I kept the ratios of eggplant to onion to celery.  I also included both capers and olives...not all recipes do this (most include one or the other).  Some recipes add raisins and pine nuts.  I didn't add either of these...but think they would be delicious. 

Besides my old restaurant 'recipe', I relied on David Lebovitz's version, as well as an excellent caponata basics post at Food 52.  The comments in the Food 52 post are particularly helpful when it comes to finishing the dish and getting the balance just right. The author says that the caponata should taste "very savory" and be "slightly acidic and subtly sweet."  To achieve this result, add salt, vinegar and/or honey as necessary.

I served the caponata to my clients on ricotta smeared crostini as a passed appetizer.  I loved the caponata I made so much that I made some for myself the very next day.  We enjoyed it for dinner with some sweet corn polenta and a sautéed chicken breast.  I had some of the leftovers the same way my clients did...and then the last of the leftovers on the leftover polenta (now firm...and fried until crisp).  It was delicious every way I served it....and as others have noted, the flavor improves upon sitting and as good as it is the day it is made, it is even better on the second and third days.

Eggplant Caponata

1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs. Eggplant, trimmed and cut in a 1/2-inch dice (about 6 to 7 cups)
2 c. diced (1/4-inch) red onion (300 g.)
1 c. diced (1/4-inch) celery (125 g.)
6 T. (plus more as needed) olive oil
15 oz. vine ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded and juices reserved
2 fat cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 t. hot pepper flakes
3 T. (30 g.) capers, rinsed
3/4 c. (85 g.) Sicilian green olives, coarsely chopped
1 T. red wine vinegar (more as needed)
1 1/2 to 2 t. honey
Salt & pepper to taste
Chopped Italian Parsley, Mint or Basil to serve

Place the eggplant in a large bowl, season with salt & pepper and drizzle with 3 T. olive oil.  Toss to coat well, adding more oil if necessary.  Spread on a rimmed baking sheet (half sheet pan) that has been sprayed with pan spray.  Make sure the eggplant is in a snug single layer.  Place in a 450° to 475° oven and roast until tender and golden—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Turn the eggplant over—using a pancake turner or other wide spatula—after it has been in the oven about 20 minutes.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, warm the remaining 3 T. of olive oil in a wide sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the onion and celery along with a good pinch of salt and cook until tender (the celery will still have texture, but it shouldn't be crunchy) and beginning to caramelize—about 20 to 25 minutes. 

While the vegetables cook, purée the tomatoes (along with their juices) until smooth.   

When the onion and celery are tender and caramelized, add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant.  Add the tomato purée, increase the heat, and simmer until the tomato sauce is very thick (it should not be soupy).   Add the olives, capers, vinegar and honey and bring back to a simmer.  

Fold in the roasted eggplant.   Smooth the caponata out into an even layer and let simmer very gently for five minutes or so to allow the flavors to blend (if it seems very dry, drizzle some hot water in around the edges.  Taste, correct the seasoning with salt and the sweet/sour balance with honey and vinegar.

Let cool to room temperature.  Serve as a side...or a spread for crostini...sprinkled with parsley, basil or mint.

Serves 6 as a side dish and 8 to 12 as an appetizer.

Notes:  If you don't have vine ripened tomatoes...or don’t want to peel and seed any...simply whisk a 1 1/2 T. of double concentrated tomato paste into a cup of water and add as you would the tomato purée.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Vacation Inspiration—Potatoes, Tomatoes & Green Beans with a Caper Vinaigrette, Fresh Herbs & Slow Roasted Salmon

I always take a stack of food magazines with me when I travel.  By the time my vacation rolls around I'm almost always behind in my reading...but even if I weren't, cooking magazines provide the perfect amount of activity when I  know there will be many short—or long—moments of down time ahead of me.  If I am somewhere that offers me the opportunity to cook, they also provide instant inspiration.  Almost without fail I return home with a dog-eared and post-it note tagged stack...and loads of new ideas.

Because some of the best meals of my life have been at the table of my friend Bonnie...and her table is imbued with the food traditions of Sweden and Denmark...I always stop and take a closer look at articles about Scandinavian food.  In the June issue of Food & Wine this year there was a travel article (with recipes, of course) about Stockholm.  A recipe for a substantial salad of vegetables topped with flaked hot smoked salmon particularly caught my eye.  It popped into my mind as I was considering what to make for dinner at the end of my first full day back home.

The components of my salad were similar...but not identical... to the original.  I didn't have any hot smoked salmon...but I did have some nice canned, olive oil packed tuna (from Trader Joe's...not the bank breaking stuff from Dean &DeLuca).  I added some poached fingerling potatoes to the green beans and cherry tomatoes called for in the original.  And I used a mix of arugula and butter lettuce for my greens.  The recipe in the magazine used a mix of red and green Bibb...and also included a few shaved radishes.  I thought the peppery arugula would add the right note in place of those radishes...and it did.

The thing about the Food & Wine salad that seemed the most unusual—and made me stop longer for an even closer look—was the fried caper vinaigrette.  I love fried capers...and I loved the idea of using the oil used to fry them as part of the vinaigrette.  The vinaigrette in the recipe was a bit more acidic than the vinaigrettes I usually favor...but with the potatoes and fish and soft butter lettuce, it was just the thing. 

We liked the salad so much that I made it again a few days later....this time with slow-roasted salmon.  And it was this version that I really preferred. The tuna was good...and I would make it again...but the salmon version was outstanding.  If you have never slow roasted salmon, check out my post from a few years ago.  It is so easy.  It's a perfect method for salmon destined for a salad....and a perfect way to prepare fish in the summer when you don't want to heat up your kitchen with a super hot oven. 

I returned from my summer vacation well rested...and so inspired from my rambles through my reading material.  I'm sure I will never get around to making all the things that caught my eye.  But I hope that they will at least continue to percolate around in my mind and manifest themselves in my cooking—and here on my blog—during the months to come and until my next opportunity to get away to relax and recharge.

Potato, Tomato & Green Bean Salad with a 
Caper Vinaigrette, Dill & Slow Roasted Salmon

6 oz. Salmon filet (with or without skin)
Olive oil
Salt & Pepper
Several sprigs of dill
1/2 lb. fingerling potatoes
1/2 t. cider or sherry vinegar
1/4 of a small red onion, very thinly sliced/shaved (about 1/4 c.)
5 to 6 oz. green beans, trimmed and cut into 2- to 3-inch lengths
5 oz. mixed cherry tomatoes
2 T. coarsely chopped dill, plus extra picked dill for garnish
2 T. minced Italian flat leaf parsley
Caper vinaigrette
1 1/2 c. bite sized pieces Bibb/butter lettuce (55 grams), rinsed and spun dry
1 1/2 c. stemmed arugula (30 grams), rinsed and spun dry
Fried capers

Place the salmon in an oiled baking dish (skin side down) and season with salt and pepper.  If you like, scatter a few sprigs of dill over the salmon.  Place in a 275° oven and bake until an instant read thermometer reads 120°—about  30 to 40 minutes.  Remove and set aside until ready to serve the salad.

While the salmon roasts, scrub the potatoes and place in a saucepan.  Cover with cold water.  Salt the water and bring to a simmer.  Cover and simmer gently until tender to the tip of a knife—about 15 to 20 minutes.  Drain.  When cool enough to handle (but still warm), halve lengthwise.  If the skins are tough, pull them off (if they are tough, this will be easily accomplished).  Place the potatoes in a large bowl and drizzle with the cider or sherry vinegar and season with salt.  Set aside.

While the potatoes cook, rinse the onions under cold running water—or soak in a small bowl of ice water for five minutes and drain.  Spread on a double thickness of paper towels and blot dry.  

Blanch the beans in a pot of boiling salted water until cooked to your liking—4 to 7 minutes.  Drain and spread on towels to cool.  (You may cook the beans in a separate pot, but I found it works just as well to drain the potatoes and use the pot the potatoes were cooked in—the beans will easily cook and cool in the amount of time it takes to cool and peel the potatoes.)

Halve or quarter the cherry tomatoes (depending on their size).  Leave them cut side up on the cutting board (or transfer to a plate) and season well with salt and pepper.  Let sit while you are pulling together all of the ingredients.

When ready to serve, add the beans, red onions, cherry tomatoes and herbs to the bowl with the potatoes.  Season with salt & pepper and drizzle in about 2/3 of the vinaigrette.  Toss to coat all the vegetables well.  Add the greens, season and toss again.  If the salad seems dry, add more of the vinaigrette.

Mound the salad on a platter or individual serving plates.  Flake the salmon into large chunks and arrange over the salad (discarding the skin if the salmon was cooked on the skin). Scatter the capers and a few dill sprigs over the salad and serve. 

Serves 2 as an entrée.  The recipe for the salad and vinaigrette are both easily multiplied to serve more.

  • Replace the salmon with a 5 oz. can of olive oil packed, solid white tuna.
  • Add a hard- or medium-cooked egg or two (halved or quartered) for a more substantial salad 

Caper Vinaigrette

3 to 4 T. olive oil
2 T. capers, rinsed and blotted dry
A scant 2 T. sherry vinegar
1/2 t. Dijon Mustard
Salt & Freshly ground pepper

Place 3 T. of olive oil in a small sauté or sauce pan and set over moderate heat.  When the oil is warm, add the capers.  They will begin to sizzle and pop as the oil continues to heat up.  Allow them to sizzle until they open and begin to darken and crisp—about 2 to 3 minutes from when they first begin to actively sizzle. 

Strain the oil into a heat proof container and let cool.  Spread the capers on some paper towels and set aside.

Place the sherry vinegar, mustard and a couple of good pinches of salt in a small bowl.  Whisk until smooth.  Measure the cooled oil and add more olive oil to make 3 T.  Add the oil to the vinegar-Dijon mixture in a thin stream while whisking constantly.  Taste and correct the seasoning and balance with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

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