Summer is the season of plenty, when the orchard and vegetable garden is overflowing with produce. Of course, eating fresh produce at this time of year is a joy to the tastebud but it is also the ideal time to put away some of the excess, for the dark winter months when very little fresh produce grows and matures, in the kitchen beds.
Humans have learnt over the millennia to store and preserve their excess summer produce to sustain them during the cold winter months and to rekindle their memories of summer long departed.
The most common home preserving technique is pickling by cooking, which includes relishes, chutneys and jams and the best known, Italian ‘chutney’ is Caponata – a sweet, sour and sometimes spicy concoction, incorporating eggplant, celery and capsicum as well as, vinegar, capers, olives and sugar awaken the tastebuds.
Every family will have their own secret recipe which they claim to be the only authentic caponata … some add tomatoes and/or olives, others add honey and some even add nuts. Like all food recipes it is often a matter of personal taste as well as, what you have to hand.
3 medium eggplants, diced and salted
3-4 celery stalks
3 red capsicums
I large onion – diced (my preference is red, but brown will do)
2 garlic cloves – minced
1 red chilli – chopped finely (optional)
¼ cup of capers – chopped roughly
¼ cup of olives – pitted and chopped
1 cup chopped tomatoes – can use tinned tomatoes
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon of dried basil
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 cup olive oil
salt and black pepper
handful basil leaves
1. Wash and de-stalk eggplants (do not remove the skin), dice into medium size cubes.
2. Place into a bowl and sprinkle with a number of good pinches of salt (approximately 2 tablespoons) and mix well. Allow the eggplant to sit for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Take small handfuls of the diced eggplant and squeeze it firmly in your hands to remove some of the excess water and set aside in a fresh bowl. Continue with remaining eggplant until all has been squeezed.
Tip – be careful as you squeeze you do not want to destroy the cubes too much.
4. Place some oil in a heavy based pan and fry the eggplant off in batches so it becomes brown and soft on most sides then remove to a bowl (or place on a paper towel to remove excess oil) and repeat. You will need to add more oil as you go.
5. Once all eggplant has been fried, again add more oil to the pan and fry off the celery, onion, garlic and chilli. When onion has softened, transfer all the ingredients to the bowl containing the fried eggplant.
6. Add more oil, and fry off the capsicum, until browned and slightly softened (about 5 minutes).
7. Return, the eggplant, celery, onion, garlic and chilli mixture to the pan with the capsicums and add capers, olives and tomatoes and heat until ingredients begin to bubble once more.
8. Add the vinegars and any remaining olive oil, as well as the dried basil, sugar and a good grinding of black pepper and cook for 20 to 30 minutes over medium heat so it gently bubbles – stirring occasionally. You want most of the liquid to evaporate but it MUST NOT be totally dry.
Tip – check the salt during the final cooking and see if more is needed.
9. Spoon into sterilised jars and top with 1 cm of olive oil before storing in a cool, dark place. The caponata will have a shelf life of approximately six months. Once opened keep in the refrigerator.
10. Serve as a dip with crusty bread or assorted vegetables or as an accompaniment to roasted meats in winter.
This dish can be served hot, cold or at room temperature.
For those who want to try something different – substitute the vinegar’s with 1 cup of red or white wine and you have a tasty ragu sauce for pasta.