I opened the door to our apartment on Thursday night, Valentine’s night, to find fresh flowers, pumping music, and Alan in an apron behind a stack of cookbooks, making a huge dinner of Meatball Shop’s spicy pork meatballs with parmesan cream sauce and a huge side of Dumont’s Mac and Cheese. My long day of working in a stuffy office and riding on screeching trains immediately rolled off my hunched back as he poured me a fresh glass of Prosecco. I watched him submerge a bunch of fresh thyme into a pot of cream and helped him form tennis balls of ground pork which we tucked into a baking dish. As dinner browned up in the oven, I discovered a package on the sideboard from my sister in LA; it was a birthday gift of a hilarious card, a copy of Us Weekly (my favorite trashy magazine) and a gift card to one of my favorite clothing stores. Yes, folks, it’s my birthday this week and I’ve been celebrating with many cooking adventures.
My friends, we’ll call them Tootsie and Coco and I started a cooking club recently. On our first meeting last week, Coco taught us how to make her hearty chili with red quinoa, Tootsie showed us how to make a Japanese dessert called Shiratama (simmered orbs of rice flour which she served with sweet bean paste and green tea ice cream) and I taught Tootsie and Coco how to make my family’s Eggplant Caponata.
On Sunday, Alan and I followed a day of bowling with some bacon-wrapped, chili and pepperoncini-topped hot dogs and a boat load of tater tots at Crif Dogs. On Monday I took a Roast, Saute and Steam class at the Institute of Culinary Education where I roasted and dismembered my first whole chicken and made mussels in a coconut curry sauce. I’m not a mussel fan but have always loved the smell of them bathing in hot white wine and chicken stock and I couldn’t pass up trying the mussels I had made myself. I tried a bite of one and dipped some garlic bread in the sauce. It was awesome, but caused me a mild panic attack because I’m always worried that I’ll develop fish allergies like my mom. But hey look, I’m still alive and happy to have learned some new skills in the kitchen. I can’t wait to make a whole chicken at home and use the bones for my first homemade stock. Knowing me, I'll probably blog about it.
Eggplant Caponata is a sweet, salty and vinegary mixture of eggplant, onion, celery, capers and olives. It’s chunky and silky and pairs well with fresh ricotta on top of crunchy French or Italian bread or even fat bread sticks. It can be served cold, warm or hot. You can find many variations of caponata, but this is how my mom makes it; my spin is the addition of pine nuts.
Makes appetizers for 6-8 people
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, cut lengthwise and chopped
1 large OR 2 medium eggplant, skinned and cubed
1 cup pitted green olives, sliced lengthwise in half
2 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
2-3 tablespoons drained capers
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 whole peeled tomatoes (from a 14-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1. Heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium/high heat. Add the celery, onion and a small pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until the celery and onions are completely soft and caramelized. Transfer it all with a slotted spoon to a heat-safe bowl and set aside.
2. Return the saute pan to the stove. Add the eggplant to the saute pan and sprinkle it with a small pinch of salt. Do not stir the eggplant until the bottom layer browns slightly. Then stir and let the eggplant soften and caramelize all over. Transfer the eggplant to the same bowl as the onion and celery.
3. Return the saute pan to the stove again, adding the olives, pine nuts, capers, red pepper flakes and tomato paste. Saute for a few minutes until pine nuts are golden brown and aromas from the olives and capers are released. Immediately add in the tomatoes, vinegar and sugar. Stir, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden or slotted spoon and let simmer for a couple of minutes.
4. Pour the contents of the saute pan into the bowl with the onions, celery and eggplant. Mix all the ingredients well, let cool slightly and serve with toasted slices of baguette with or without fresh ricotta cheese.
Caponata photos by Alan Foreman