Sicily has long influenced South Louisiana cuisine, a trend that started when large waves of immigrants sailed from Palermo to New Orleans throughout the late 19th Century. Settling in the Crescent City, as well as communities like Independence and Baton Rouge, those Sicilian immigrants (many of them becoming grocers) forever impacted the way we eat here in the Bayou State. Ahhh…muffalettos. St. Joseph’s altars draped in fig cookies. Red gravies simmering endlessly at family stoves. The Sicilian specialty caponata, while not as high profile, is also a dish that was prepared in Louisiana with ease. Trendier today than ever, it’s a perfect use for that late-summer local beauty, eggplant.
Served at room temperature and functioning as a relish, caponata is bold and flavorful, but not heavy. It’s a cooked-down combination of diced eggplant, celery, tomatoes and peppers that features sweet-and-sour notes thanks to the addition of ingredients like vinegar, sugar, capers, raisins, caramelized onions, anchovies or anchovy paste.
Recipes for caponata vary as much as they do for chili or gumbo. Some call for finely chopping the veggies to create more of a tapenade texture. Others keep veggies chunkier. Some, such as the one included in the French culinary encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique, suggest frying the eggplant first. It’s also not uncommon to toss in complementary summer produce, including squash and zucchini. I’ve done this myself to use up a surplus after I go a little nuts at the farmers market. The bottom line is that caponata preparation is forgiving, and it doesn’t require rigid instruction.
Generally speaking, cut up one eggplant (any kind) and sauté it in olive oil with chopped onion, bell pepper (any color combination), celery and little garlic. Add enough chopped fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes to create a stew-like consistency. Add salt, or better yet, a few diced anchovy fillets, ground black pepper, golden raisins, capers, a pinch of sugar and a little vinegar. You won’t have to cook it longer than 30 minutes total, and you can adjust seasonings along the way. Top or garnish with fresh basil, oregano or parsley and serve with grilled slices of French bread or good crackers. It’s a really nice way to enjoy the final expression of summer produce.