Before you concede the end of summer by roasting root vegetables or making pumpkin pie, remember that the finest summer produce can often be found at the very end of the season and even into the beginning of fall. Here in New York City, the markets are still filled with beautiful tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and basil. So forget about Brussels sprouts (for now) and make some caponata!
Caponata represents one of my favorite aspects of Italian cooking: the fact that families in Italy will often disagree about how to make an iconic dish. There is no definitive version of caponata, which is essentially a room temperature vegetable salad made (traditionally) with eggplant that tastes great on crostini. In Sicily, where the dish originated, you will likely find a slightly different version in each town you visit, and although there can be vigorous disagreements about the best way to make caponata, ultimately all regional versions are accepted as authentic and legitimate.
Eggplant + tomato + caramelized aliums + other veg of your choice (celery, roasted peppers, etc.) + dried fruit soaked in vinegar + something salty (capers or olives) + crunchy nuts + fresh herbs + more vinegar and sugar to taste. (There are not always raisins and pine nuts—but while we're riffing, I like to add chile flakes, too.)
The one characteristic that every caponata recipe has in common is agrodolce. Agrodolce refers to a sweet and sour combination of flavors resulting from cooked vinegar and sugar, a perfect balance between tangy acidity and delicate sweetness.
Any assortment of vegetables can be cooked with agrodolce flavor, but if your recipe doesn't contain eggplant and tomato, traditionalists may have a hard time calling it caponata. (That said, butternut squash or fennel or carrots—or zucchini or artichoke hearts!—are all fun substitutes for or additions to the eggplant.) But if the recipe has vinegar-soaked dried fruit, caramelized onions, olives or capers, and that agrodolce flavor, then maybe it does deserve to be called caponata even if there are no eggplants or tomatoes in sight. Depends on how open-minded you want to be.
My version of caponata features eggplant, fresh tomato, roasted peppers, sautéed onions, and garlic. I also add raisins, toasted pine nuts, green Castelvetrano olives, and fresh basil. For those of you who prefer to use capers instead of olives, or celery instead of peppers, don’t worry. Simply swap in the ingredients that you prefer. Listen to your heart! Just remember that if your vegetable of choice has a high water content (like zucchini), you should sauté it separately before folding it in with your main skillet of caponata ingredients, so that your caponata doesn’t turn into a wet, mushy mess.
If you want to feed 6 to 8 people with your caponata, plan on using two bell peppers, two beefsteak tomatoes, 1 onion, 2 cloves garlic, 1 large eggplant, 1 handful each raisins and pine nuts and Castelvetrano olives, and two handfuls of fresh basil, plus red wine vinegar, olive oil, sugar, salt, and some chile flakes. Adjust this up or down based on substitutions you make (and what you like or don't like).
Read on for a beyond-the-basics how-to!
When I was a young cook in culinary school, I had a chef instructor who would constantly tell us "everything counts." The process of making caponata clearly illustrates this concept: For example, you will be tempted to buy roasted peppers in a jar instead of roasting them yourself. You will be tempted to use canned tomatoes instead of fresh. You may not feel like it’s important to soak your raisins in vinegar before cooking with them. But the theory of "everything counts" states that all of these small details added together will create something greater than the sum of their parts. I know that when you adhere to the philosophy of "everything counts" that you end up having to wash more dishes. But this attention to detail can be the difference between good food and transcendent cooking. So, let's begin.
I begin with the bell peppers and fresh tomatoes, because they can both be done ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
Cut the peppers into quarters, removing all seeds and membrane. Lay the peppers on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, and broil them (no need to turn them) until the skin becomes blackened. Transfer the peppers to a mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the peppers steam for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove the plastic wrap from the bowl and peel the charred skin off the peppers. Discard the skin, dice the roasted peppers, and store them in the refrigerator.
While the peppers are steaming, set a large pot of water over high heat. Take two ripe beefsteak tomatoes, and use a paring knife to remove the stem. Turn the tomatoes over and score the skin by cutting an X into them. When the water is boiling, add the tomatoes, cooking for 30 to 60 seconds or until the skin begins to visibly loosen. Remove the tomatoes, run them under cold water, peel off the skin, and cut the flesh into quarters. Set a fine mesh strainer over a mixing bowl. Working over the strainer, remove the seeds. The bowl underneath the strainer will catch the "tomato water." Reserve that water, toss the seeds, dice the tomato flesh, and store it together with the tomato water in the refrigerator.
Next, dice an onion and mince two cloves of garlic. Sauté these ingredients over medium heat in a large skillet with olive oil and a pinch of chili flakes. You want the onions to become soft, sweet, and caramelized. Stirring occasionally, this should take 20 to 30 minutes.
While the onions and garlic are cooking, place a handful of raisins in a small bowl, cover them with red wine vinegar, and set aside for later.
Next, dice one large eggplant. Set a large skillet with grapeseed or canola oil over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, add the eggplant, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. You want a single, even layer of eggplant, so cook it in batches if you have to. Sear the eggplant on all sides, stirring regularly. The eggplant will initially soak up a lot of the oil, so be prepared to add a little extra oil if your skillet looks too dry. When the eggplant is golden brown, transfer it to a rimmed baking sheet and season it with salt and pepper.
It may seem like there are a lot of disparate ingredients at this point, but they all come together: Add the roasted peppers, diced tomatoes, and tomato water to the skillet with the sauteed onions and garlic. Adjust the heat to high and season lightly with salt and pepper. When the tomato water starts to simmer, add a large handful of chopped Castelvetrano olives, along with the raisins and the vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar. Cook until the liquid in the skillet is almost fully reduced. Then, lower the heat to medium and add the seared eggplant along with a handful of toasted pine nuts, stirring to combine. If the caponata looks very wet, continue cooking it until more of the liquid has evaporated.
The next moment is the most crucial step: Taste the caponata. It should taste savory, so add more salt if necessary. It should also taste slightly acidic and subtly sweet. If the acid is dominant, balance it out with an extra sprinkle of sugar. The final dish shouldn’t taste overly sweet; the sugar should accentuate the natural sweetness of the tomatoes, caramelized onions, and roasted peppers. When you are satisfied with the flavor, remove the skillet from the heat, add two large handfuls of torn basil leaves, and stir to combine. (Once you have made this dish a few times, it will become much easier to season it properly without measuring any ingredients at all.)
Let the caponata cool to room temperature, and then either eat it right away or store it in the refrigerator for later. This is one of those dishes that tastes better the following day, after the flavors have had a chance to meld, so by all means make it a day before you intend to serve it.
Josh Cohen is Food52's Test Kitchen Chef.
What caponata riffs would you make? Zucchini with celery and golden raisins? Summer squash with Kalamata olives and dried cherries? Tell us in the comments!