Eggplants did not darken my mother’s kitchen. Like her friends she believed that they were poisonous fruits related to deadly nightshade that would kill you “before you could say Jack Robinson.” By the time I was in the eighth grade I had learned that tomatoes and potatoes were also relatives of deadly nightshade and that people had once thought both of those staples in the Rang household were poisonous. When I pointed this out, Mom told me that people were wrong about potatoes and tomatoes but right about eggplants. End of argument.
I didn’t know what to do with them anyway, though Eddie, my Italian friend in high school, told me that his grandfather made a dish called Eggplant Parmigiana that was pretty good. The first time that I knowingly ate eggplant was in caponata in Murray, Kentucky. Though I knew better, I remember wondering what it would feel like to die of eggplant poisoning. After a few bites, however, I was wondering only how I had lived nearly thirty years before discovering just how delicious eggplant could taste.
Our friend Pat, who was very proud of her Sicilian heritage, introduced us to this delicious antipasto. We have lost Pat’s recipe, but I remember her saying that it was just important to have lots of everything and then season it right. Caponata is really a Sicilian eggplant stew, and there are probably as many versions as there are grandmothers in Sicily. This version gets its unique flavor from capers, cider vinegar and a little sugar to give a hint of sweetness. Caponata improves by sitting in the refrigerator for a day or two and keeps well for a week. It can be served as a side dish, but we prefer it on crackers or slices of Italian bread or bruschetta.
2 eggplants (about 1 1/2 lbs. total)
1 large yellow onion
2 large cloves garlic
4 stalks celery
4 medium tomatoes
1/2 to 3/4 cup olives
1 4 oz. can mushrooms
1 T pignolia (pine) nuts
2 T capers
4 T extra virgin olive oil, separated
3 – 4 T apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. sugar
Salt & pepper to taste
Wash and remove the stems from the eggplants, then slice them a quarter-inch thick. Layer the slices in a flat baking dish or something similar, sprinkling each layer with salt. Put a weighted plate on top and let the eggplant sit for up to an hour to draw out the bitter juices. While you are waiting on the eggplant, chop the celery and tomato medium fine and set aside in a bowl. Chop the onion fine and mince the garlic.
Drain the eggplant and press the slices gently to remove excess juice, then rinse and drain the slices and pat them dry with paper towels. Dice the eggplant. Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the eggplant over moderate heat until it is slightly browned and softened. If the eggplant looks dry you can add a little more olive oil. Remove the eggplant to a bowl and set it aside.
Heat another two tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet and sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent and just starting to turn golden. Add the celery, tomato and two or three tablespoons of water to the onion. Cover and steam the vegetables ten minutes, stirring three or four times.
Add the eggplant, pignolia nuts and capers. Drain and add the mushrooms. Stir in the vinegar, a half teaspoon of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of salt, and about an eighth teaspoon of black pepper. Stir together and simmer covered about ten minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the sliced olives. We use a combination of green and black olives. Adjust the seasoning.
NOTE: You can find beautiful eggplants at farmers markets. There are different varieties but we prefer the dark purple ones up to about six inches in diameter. Choose fruits that are smooth and firm.