During the holiday season, family recipes reign supreme. It’s such a festive, nostalgic time of year, and making a recipe that’s been handed down through the generations is a wonderful way to remember those of our loved ones who are no longer with us. Leafing through the lovingly-tattered pages of our spiral-bound family recipe book always reminds me of the comforting aromas of my grandmother’s kitchen. Last year, I posted the recipe for my “Nanny,” Josephine’s, Anise Cookies. This year, I’m sharing her delicious Caponata (Italian eggplant appetizer). Cubes of sautéed eggplant are tossed with a rich tomato sauce, garlic, toasted pine nuts, olives, capers, and golden raisins. It’s sweet, tangy, briny, and totally delicious with crisp crostini toasts or wedges of crusty bread and a glass of wine.
I’ve been noticing caponata popping up on more and more restaurant menus over the past few years (especially at wine bars and places specializing in “small plate” dining). It’s a bit of a rustic dish, so I’ve always thought it brings a warm, relaxed feel to the table that’s perfect for socializing with friends. Recipes for caponata vary by cook, some drawing on more of the sweet flavors than the tangy (and vice versa), or adding additional vegetables such as carrots or bell peppers. My grandmother kept her base on the simple side with thinly-sliced, sautéed onions and celery, letting the supporting layers of flavor shine through.
This recipe yields a fairly large batch of caponata (almost two quarts), making it great for a crowd, or for enjoying leftovers. If you’re serving a smaller group, the recipe is easily halved. As an added bonus, it’s a one-pan dish that can—and should—be made ahead of time to give the flavors a chance to meld. While it’s delicious when first prepared, the developed flavor of caponata served on Day 2 or 3 will be even better, and well worth the wait.
We usually enjoy caponata as an appetizer, but this recipe is certainly substantial enough that it could serve as a light vegetarian lunch as well. I’ve also tossed the leftovers with pasta in the past (reserve a little bit of the cooking water to thin the sauce), for a quick and hearty dinner. As for the wine paring, I’ve served caponata with everything from Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc to dry or semi-sweet Riesling and Sparkling Rosé. You want to go for something that will work with the sauce’s acidity. A bowl of this caponata would be perfect for ringing in the New Year, or even for that big game day coming up in February!
More Appetizers and Snacks for Entertaining:
Spinach and Artichoke Dip or Stuffed Mushrooms
Potato and Zucchini Chips with Gorgonzola and Thyme
Hot Crab Salsa Dip
Roasted Grape Crostini
Roux Crab Cakes
Grilled Shrimp Scampi
Spiced Pumpkin Seeds
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2-1/2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
- 2 stalks celery hearts, thinly sliced (about 2/3 cup)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 6 ounces tomato paste (small can)
- 1 cup basic tomato sauce (such as Hunt's or Pomi; not pasta sauce) or crushed tomatoes in puree
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt plus additional to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper, plus additional to taste
- 1 cup pitted large green olives, halved*
- 3 tablespoons capers, drained
- 1/4-1/3 cup golden raisins (depending on how sweet you like your caponata)
- 1/3 cup toasted pignoli nuts (2 oz package)
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat until shimmering. Cook the eggplant cubes until they're tender, but don't lose their shape, about 8-10 minutes, gently stirring frequently.** Transfer cooked eggplant to a bowl and set aside.
- Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil. Sauté onions and celery until softened, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in garlic and tomato paste and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes/puree, water, sugar, salt, and pepper to the skillet and stir to combine. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and gently stir in eggplant, olives, capers, raisins, toasted pignoli nuts, and vinegar.
- Cool, then transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate at least overnight to develop the flavors. Let stand at room temperature for about an hour before serving. Caponata keeps well for about a week, covered tightly, in the refrigerator.
**The eggplant might soak up the oil and the pan might start to look dry; this is normal for this recipe. Resist the temptation to add additional oil so the assembled caponata doesn't taste greasy. Using a nonstick skillet will ensure that the eggplant cubes don't stick.