I adore eggplants. People complain about their tough skin, strange, seedy innards, and pallid white-green flesh, but I find that they’re elegant and so confident in their glossy rotund bodies and handsome purple hue. Eggplants make me happy with their classy adaptability: they can be prepared in a million different ways so you never get tired of them. On our honeymoon, I put on a purple t-shirt dress and asked H., “Do I look like an eggplant?” “Yes,” he replied and explained to our friend, “She takes this as a compliment.”
I like eggplant broiled, mashed and cooked with spices until it becomes hot, soupy, baingan bartha, shoveled in my mouth with naan; I like it roasted and mixed with yogurt for a cool summer raita and I love eating eggplant with tomatoes and milky mozzarella, olive oil and salt. Of course, I like babaganoush, eggplant parmigiana, and eggplant in spicy garlic sauce and I plan on learning to make all of them. But last week, I made an eggplant caponata that was so deliciously intense, winey and dark and romantically simmering with flavor that instead of making one of the aforementioned dishes, I’m going to make this caponata again, today, using the dark plump beauty sitting in my fridge.
I think this eggplant, slick with slow-cooked flavors, is perfect for wooing a sweetheart with your romantic prowess in the kitchen or for wooing yourself when you’re despondent and in the mood for a soul-satisfying dish. Preparing this caponata takes a little time but pressing your knife into the tight skin of an eggplant, softening carrots for a tomato sauce, and adding a cloud of cinnamon so the saucepan smells like spring flowers is sure to banish your I Miss Living In New York Blues, or I Miss the Spring and the Fall Blues or I Miss My Friends Most Of All Blues or really, whichever blues you might be feeling.
Cooking this caponata lets you mull, and daydream, and hum when you’re finally feeling up for it, because sweetening the eggplant in the browned onions and prunes takes time, and making the pungent tomato sauce that the cubed eggplants absorb takes time; and in that time, after all those minutes spent chopping and stirring and wallowing in the smoky, certain smells of cooking eggplants and tomatoes, cinnamon and thyme, you will most likely feel better and ready- for what’s next, for the first forkful of caponata, which will be resonant with sweetness and spice and all that you hunger for, and have, right in front of you, on your plate.
You can eat this caponata on toasted bread, or with pasta, or with nothing else at all.
Eggplant Caponata to Fix the Blues
adapted from Molto Italiano
makes 8 servings
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large red onion or about 3 medium-sized Indian onions
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. pine nuts
3 Tbsp. dried prunes
1 Tbsp. hot red pepper flakes
2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1/2-1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
3/4 cup basic tomato sauce
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
1. In a 10-12 inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, prunes and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened, 4-5 minutes. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon and cocoa and cook for 5 minutes.
2. Add the thyme, tomato sauce (recipe below) and vinegar and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. (The caponata can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Basic Tomato Sauce
from Molto Italiano
makes 4 cups
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, cut into a 1/4-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme, or 1 Tbsp. dried thyme
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded, or 1 whole red Indian carrot, shredded
3.5 – 4 cups blanched whole tomatoes, skins removed (about 15 Indian oval tomatoes) or two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes
1. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat, the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook until the carrot is quite soft, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, with their juice, and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer until as thick as hot cereal, about 30-40 minutes. Season with salt. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 6 months.