LocalSeasonal Take 1: Caponata

by rivka on September 2, 2008 · 1 comment

in appetizers, bread, condiments, good for you, vegetarian, weekday lunch

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If I may say so myself, tonight was a smashing success. A whole day into my challenge and I’m still thrilled that I took it on! On the menu this evening was kalamata olive sourdough bread from the market, homemade eggplant caponata, and greens with heirloom tomatoes, feta, and red onions that I pickled in fresh-squeezed lime juice till they turned a beautiful shade of purple.

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Some thoughts on preparing and eating tonight’s dinner:

  • This is really the clincher, I think — everything just tasted so fresh. The heirlooms were bursting with juices, like perfect summer tomatoes should. The greens — a mixture of spinach and arugula, also from the market — were beautiful and quirkily shaped, not like th uniformly-chopped salad greens you can by at the store. They were also super fresh, the arugula nice and spicy. Even the caponata, which I made with tomato sauce that I cooked up this weekend, tasted fresh. It doesn’t take much to sell me on the virtues of maximizing fresh produce in my cooking, now does it?
  • The irony about cooking and preparing such fresh produce is that while my mouth waters at the site of my farmers market bounty far more than it does with the contents of a Safeway grocery run, I also eat so much more slowly when what’s on my plate smacks with fresh-homemade-ness. When the food isn’t fresh, or isn’t in season, or for some other reason doesn’t taste its best, I tend to just shovel it in and scarf it down mindlessly. When dinner is as fantastic as it was tonight, I find myself savoring every bite, thus feeling full earlier and eating less. I made like the French tonight — I ate 1 slice of bread, 1 ladleful of caponata, and 1 helping of salad; and I didn’t go back for seconds.
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  • There’s something sensual about cooking with local, seasonal ingredients. For one thing, they’re more delicate. I wash them, dry them, chop them, and generally handle them with far more care then when I’m chopping up a couple winter tomatoes (which I hope to buy less, by the way). Time with myself in the kitchen has always been therapeutic and restorative for me; all the more so when I’m working with the best produce summer has to offer.
  • Some of you no doubt are thinking that I picked a mighty convenient time to do this — at the height of summer’s produce boon. And you’d be right! No way around that. But I will say that there are few things I love more than a good winter stew — and there are few things more comforting to cook as well. So without making any promises, I imagine that I might take away from this experience a desire to eat seasonally even when the season has limited produce to offer.

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Are any of you out there trying this or something like it? If so, do share your stories! For now, here’s a blueprint for the caponata I made tonight. As I made it by taste-and-adjust, there’s no precise recipe. You’ll just have to get in there and try it yourself. :)

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Caponata

Olive oil (at least 1/4 cup)
1 medium to large eggplant, firm and shiny, in 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
1 small red or yellow onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped very fine
4 cloves garlic, peeled and kept whole
2 Tbsp capers
1/3 cup raisins, dried cranberries, cherries, or currants
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup white wine or cider vinegar
several sprigs of mint
dried marjoram, oregano, tarragon, or other herbs
salt and pepper
chili flakes

In a heavy bottomed large saute pan, heat a healthy dose (a few Tbsp) olive oil on medium-high. Add eggplant and toss around the pan, allowing to scorch in places, about 4 minutes. After the eggplant is browned and softened a bit, remove and place into a bowl off the heat. Add a few more Tbsp of oil, turn heat to medium-low, and add onions and garlic, allowing to cook just until they start to brown. When that happens, add the celery, brown a bit, then add eggplant back into the pan, and add a bit of the wine, just to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato sauce, and toss or stir to coat. Add the herbs, the capers and the dried cranberries/raisins/whatever, as well as a bit more of the wine (total about 2/3 cup). Cover the pan and allow to simmer, on low heat, for at least 20 minutes until the garlic is soft and mushy, the raisins/cranberries are plumped a bit, and the eggplant is soft. From here on out, it’s a game of taste and adjust. If needed, add more wine. If the flavoring tastes right to you, just add water if you need to thin it out. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve room temperature, hot, or cold, with sliced [I like toasted] crusty bread, and perhaps a few cheeses.

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Price Information:
eggplant from the farmers market, 1.69 per pound
1.67 per eggplant at the store
beefsteak tomatoes from the market, 2.50 per pound
1 dollar each at the store
greens from the market, 5 dollars for half a pound
6 oz. for 3.79 at the store — about equal
heirloom tomatoes from the market, 3.99 per pound
not available at my store
herbed feta cheese, 9.75 per pound at the market
8.58 per pound and nowhere near as good!
half a kalamata sourdough at the market, 2.50
price varies — can you get half a loaf at your store?

On balance, I definitely think I came out ahead here, and the price differential is slim to none in most cases. Food for thought…

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