Caponata, a cooked eggplant salad, is one of Sicily’s most famous dishes - and justly so.
The classic recipe calls for a meaty blend of tomatoes, onions, garlic, olives and eggplant in a marvelously balanced sweet-and-sour dressing.
However, food historians point out that eggplant almost didn’t make it into Sicilian cuisine. Arabs introduced it when they controlled the island about 1,000 A.D., and it was viewed with suspicion by most of the population.
Jews, though, embraced the fruit and frequently prepared it as a cold salad for the Saturday Sabbath lunch when they didn’t cook. The vinegar in the recipe preserved it; the sugar countered the vinegar. When Jews were exiled from Sicily at the beginning of the 16th century, they left behind their recipe.
Caponata is now a favorite throughout Italy. There are many versions, but the eggplant one is the most popular. It’s served in restaurants as a salad course, and in homes as a side dish and even as a vegetarian entree.
My adaptation uses balsamic vinegar, which doubles for the vinegar and the sugar. The sweet-sour contrast isn’t as pronounced as in some recipes but can be adjusted to taste.
Like most stewed foods, caponata improves with age. Make it at least an hour before serving. If you make it a day in advance, bring it to room temperature.
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 Japanese eggplant, trimmed and diced
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1 medium zucchini, trimmed and diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and diced
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (see note)
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 tablespoons pitted, diced ripe olives
1 tablespoon chopped basil
Combine shallot, eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini and garlic with olive oil in skillet. Saute over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in capers, olives, basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 5 minutes.
Correct seasonings, adding additional 1/2 to 1 tablespoon vinegar if desired for sweet-and-sour taste. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: 2 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 235 calories, 15.4 grams fat (58 percent fat calories), 5 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 139 milligrams sodium.
Note: If balsamic vinegar isn’t available, use red wine vinegar mixed with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar.