Monday, January 19, 2009

CSA week seven - Eggplant caponata

This is a recipe by Todd English, chef and the restaurateur behind the Olives restaurants and a bunch of others, too. If you've seen his show Food Trip or seen him interviewed you'll know that his schtick, at the Olives locations anyway, is pan-Mediterranean--bringing together all of the cuisines where olives grow by adulterating dishes a variety of foreign (but not too foreign) substances.

I've seen him putting these dishes together on Food Trip and generally the results don't look all that appealing to me. I'm fine with complicating a recipe with lots of fiddly little additions, but I try to stick with classic combination of flavors within a cuisine or, if I stray, take the flavors entirely over to the new cuisine. But then, I'm just some schmuck with a blog and he's a restaurateur with sufficient reputation to sell out to Home Shopping Network. So when I saw this recipe (and you don't see a lot of his recipes floating around the web. Probably because they're a pain to make without a sou chef helping out.) I thought I'd give it a shot and see how one of his recipes actually tastes.

Caponata is a traditional Sicilian appetizer served on crostini; it's eggplant, tomatoes, a bit of vinegar and capers, maybe some olives--that's about it. English starts off by adding a big pile of sausage which is such an unusual addition that Google doubts that's what I mean when I search for "caponata sausage". So this thing is going off the rails even before we get to the orange juice and curry powder. I've got my reservations but it's got some intriguingly odd combinations; take a look:

Todd English's Eggplant Caponata

1 eggplant, peeled and cut in medium dice
12 ounces sweet Italian sausage
2 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small red onion, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh peeled ginger
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoons chopped capers
1 cup chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 to 1 cup water

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons chopped scallions

1. Place a large non stick pan over a medium heat and when it is hot, add the eggplant. Cook until the eggplant is golden brown on all sides, about 10-15 minutes. Remove the eggplant and set it aside.

2. Reheat the pan, add the sausage and cook over medium high heat until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Remove the sausage, discard the fat. When the sausage is cool enough to handle, roughly chop it.

3. Reheat the pan an add the oil. Add the garlic and onion and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the reserved sausage, raisins, ginger root, capers, tomatoes, salt, orange juice, curry powder, pepper flakes, honey, reserved eggplant and 1/4 cup water, stirring well after each addition.

4. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook until the eggplant is soft and the mixture is chunky and saucey, adding more water if necessary, or about 30 minutes.

5. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vinegar, basil, cilantro, parsley, rosemary and scallions. Serve at room temperature.

So is it any good? Well, if you like oranges and raisins, sure, as it's hard to taste anything pat the sweetly curried fruit. But it's a nice enough curry and the flavors are more harmonious than I expected; when you get a bit of eggplant or sausage that retains some identity, the sauce does compliment them well enough. I will say that the Mediterranean fusion thing is a bust. Change the sausage to something north African and you'd have no clue of an Italian origin. It's a fine enough dish, but is it a good caponata? I'd say no, but I'm not judging a caponata cooking competition here so I don't suppose it really matters. I kind of regret not trying something more classic instead . When you cook from a recipe do you prefer to stay traditional or a chefs' idiosyncratic creations?


LaDivaCucina said...

Well Bill, once again we are simpatico, I did caponata a week or two ago on my blog.

Leave it to these "celebrity" chefs to over-complicate a simple classic and very tasty dish. Orange juice? Curry powder? Ginger? My Sicilian ancestors are turning in their graves! I"m all about improving on dishes and fusion, but, it's gotta work!

I've watched a lot of cooking shows where the host goes to Italy and the recurring theme with Italian cooks is simple dishes that are not overly thought out using the freshest of produce.

Check out the recipe I made up for this dish from about a week ago:

It turned out very good. It was a good way to use up the eggplant and it lasts for weeks in the fridge. That's why I'm not so sure about the's meant to be like a relish these days although it was used as a main entree back in the day. (this dish has been around for hundreds of years)

billjac said...

When I did a little more research I came across Mario Batali's cabonata recipe . You'd think he'd stick with something strictly Italian (if not strictly Sicilian), but he's got currants, orange juice and cocoa in there. I get the feeling there's something they're both aiming at that we don't know about.

By the way, I managed to get the pics in, but I couldn't do any post-processing so they're not as clear as they could be. Still, you should get a sense of what it looked like.

LaDivaCucina said...

The caponata looks more like a stew than an eggplant dish! Crikey, you're halfway to a curry already, why not make it one? haha!

I think this recipe is missing a key flavor component that actually MAKES it a caponata... the olives.
I said in my post that there are about as many recipes for caponata as there are for spaghetti bolognese and it's true....but still there has to be something that makes it a caponata besides the eggplant and tomatoes!

I like to add anchovies to mine...anchovies give such a nice depth of flavor without being too obvious.

I have NO IDEA what those silly chefs are aiming at but my guess is that they are trying to be way too clever for a dish that is meant to be so simple.