Category: Vegetable

Caponata—Summer’s Bounty

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From my perspective, some of the most interesting regional Mediterranean cuisine can be found on the island of Sicily. What makes the cuisine interesting for me, either in traditional or modern interpretations, are all of the diverse cultural heritages that have left their imprint on what has evolved into Sicilian cuisine today. Sicilian cuisine, it could be argued is the original “fusion cuisine”—a layering of many ingredients and flavors as they were discovered and later introduced into the culinary tradition.

Any discussion about Sicilian cuisine should begin with caponata and its more refined variation, caponatina. It is one dish that strongly reflects a melding of several of the culinary influences that have shaped Sicilian cuisine as it has evolved over the last 2,500 years. By way of a few examples: the Greeks introduced, among other ingredients, olives and honey, which both found their way into the base caponata recipe. The ancient Romans and later the Arabs shaped the Sicilian traditional style of cooking, agrodolce (sweet and sour), which uses olive oil, vinegar, and sugar or honey to add personality to caponata, and is a perfect example of that agrodolce style. Under the Spanish influence both the tomato and cocoa found their place in Sicilian cooking and a spot on the caponata ingredients list. Finally, the two key ingredients in the dish, eggplant and capers, owe much to the Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine and Sicilian culture in general. Eggplants, native to southern India, and capers, native to central and western Asia, found their way into Sicily as the Arab influence moved westward into the Mediterranean region.

Caponata has also been one of those foundation dishes for me because the recipe I will share with you in this post has kept me connected to my family, starting with my Sicilian grandmother who passed it along to my aunt, who in turn passed it along to my cousin from whom I received it initially. My recipe is now an interpretation of theirs, having evolved over time as I became a more experienced cook and discovered better ingredients.

The main ingredient of caponata is eggplant, which at this time of the summer season is at its peak, so it is best to take advantage of that bounty now. It can be argued that Sicilian eggplants are the best in Italy overall, although using the fruit—generally considered a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit—at its seasonal best will provide for a more delicious caponata outcome.

Caponata … My Way

Some quick thoughts before we begin:

  • There are many regional caponata recipes and optional ingredients to choose from, so find one with the ingredient combinations you like and begin to explore from there.
  • All the ingredients should be cut into uniform size, whether it’s all chunky or all in a smaller dice as with the caponatina, which allows all the ingredients to cook evenly.
  • The eggplant(s) you choose should be firm, not soft, with smooth unblemished skin. Select small to medium in size since the larger eggplants generally have more seeds. Peeling or not is a matter of personal taste. I prefer not to peel because the skin adds a depth of color, additional flavor and texture, along with simply making the finished dish look more interesting. Finally, eggplants are sponges when it comes to cooking with oil and can become soggy. Cook with less oil, over higher heat while stirring often to avoid having a soggy finish or the eggplant sticking to the pan. It is worth noting that I have read white eggplants will absorb less oil, although I have not used that variety in this recipe yet.
  • The variety and color of the olives used can influence the outcome of the dish by adding flavor, color, salinity, and texture. In the past I have used green Castelvetrano olives, Kalamata olives, Gaeta olives, and various other oil-cured olives. In this recipe I incorporated rich oil-cured olives from Morocco.
  • Capers, whether brined or salted can be used interchangeably, although with either they should be rinsed well to reduce the salt before adding to the mix.
  • Along with the required celery I also add fennel to this dish because I like the flavor and I find it is a good way to use both the stalks and the fronds.
  • Both sugar and honey can be used to add that touch of sweetness to the dish. Honey, the original sweetening ingredient before sugar cane was introduced on the island, is just more interesting to use because there are so many varieties, each bringing a different personality to the sweet component in the recipe. This time I used a wild-flower honey variety from Tuscany.
  • In this recipe two vinegars are used: Red wine vinegar, and for an added depth of flavor a drizzle or two of balsamic syrup, made by slowly cooking down a bottle of a lesser-aged balsamic.
  • If during the cooking process some additional liquid might be required, dry red vermouth or Marsala wine are on hand.
  • Along with the tomato paste I also add several chopped, slow-roasted plum tomatoes that are always on hand during this peak summer tomato season.
  • Herbs and spices: celery leaf, fennel fronds, fennel pollen, and occasionally minced parsley and basil leaf, along with a pinch of pepperoncino (red chili flakes).
  • Some recipes also include nuts, which if I were to include, would be either lightly toasted pine nuts or chopped pistachio nuts.

Ingredients
1 to 2 medium eggplants
2 medium red onions
3 to 4 large garlic cloves
2 to 3 celery stalks + leaves
2 to 3 fennel stalks + fronds
2/3 cup pitted olives
2 tablespoons capers
2 to 3 tablespoons raisins (yellow or red)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 to 4 roasted plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
2 tablespoons balsamic syrup
Dry red vermouth or Marsala
Fennel pollen (optional)
Basil leaves (optional)
Pine nuts or pistachio (optional)
Salt, pepper, pepperoncino to taste

Mise en place

Method

Prepare all the ingredients as described in my opening thoughts.

Using a large heavy-bottom stockpot with high sides, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium to high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the onion, garlic, celery (without leaves), and fennel (without fronds), stirring frequently until vegetable mix begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the prepared eggplant, stirring to thoroughly combine with the aromatic vegetable sauté adding a pinch more of salt and pepper. Cook for an additional 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the olives, capers, and raisins, again mixing to thoroughly combine into the sauté. If the mix seems a little dry add a splash of the vermouth or Marsala.

Add the tomato paste, chopped roasted tomatoes, honey, vinegars, and sprinkle the cocoa over. Stir the mixture again to thoroughly combine as the dish will take on a deeper color. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and continue cooking for 7 to 10 minutes more stirring frequently to prevent any sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the reserved celery leaves and minced fennel fronds, along with ½ teaspoon of fennel pollen (if using) and the shredded basil leaves (if using). The nuts can be added at this time (if using) along with the pepperoncino (if using). Stir once again to combine all the ingredients while checking and correcting the seasoning, of the honey, the vinegar, the herbs and the spices.

Continue to slowly cook, stirring frequently until the eggplant is cooked through but is not soggy and continues to hold its shape—this is best determined by tasting as you go along.

When done, remove the pot from the heat and allow the caponata to cool. Transfer to a bowl and allow to set at room temperature. Cover and refrigerate, allowing the flavors to develop further over night as the dish is best served beginning on the second day. Allow it to return to room temperature before serving.

Caponata is best served as part of an antipasto course and makes a fine topping spread on crostini. It pairs well with egg dishes and works nicely as an appetizer or side salad. I have also used it as a flavorful underlay with grilled fish and sautéed cutlets made with either chicken or turkey. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week and also freezes well.

Caponata plated

So whether you choose to serve this sweet-and-sour eggplant specialty as part of your next antipasti, as a side dish, or as an accompaniment to a frittata, you should consider adding caponata to your summertime cooking.

Eat well. Be well.

DM

We all live in a small place, between the future we anticipate and the past we try and relive. . . . Food is one way of staying connected to the people who surround us.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Break with Tradition

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What to Cook in the New Kitchen? An Untraditional Easter Dinner.

On April 10, 2017, all take-out food R.I.P.!

For three-and-a-half weeks we were without the use of our kitchen. Everything with the exception of the floor tiles has been replaced and refreshed.

On April 11, I was finally able to test drive the new kitchen space and appliances, and prepared our first home-cooked meal in the new digs. We were once again able to enjoy fresh ingredients the way we like them—comfort food cooked at home—instead of having to settle for the overpriced, oversalted, overconceptualized fuel masquerading as fine food which is peddled in the area in which we live.

Truth be told, we were invited guests of friends on two occasions where we were able to enjoy a good meal.

Needless to say, I didn’t spend any time food shopping during the renovation, so the cupboards were a little spare, so to speak.

When the kitchen remodel was finally completed, I made a few quick trips to the markets, supplemented what I purchased with what I had in the larder and a few  meals al Dante were cobbled together to get things started. Although not the very first meal I prepared in the new space, the recipes I am going to share with you now made up our untraditional Easter dinner and are a good example of what is possible whether you have a new kitchen or not.

Kitchen

When I was growing up, Easter dinner, in some fashion, might have included a pasta dish, a leg of lamb, asparagus, maybe a pizza rustica-type cake, and perhaps a Neopolitan-style-tart made with rice and ricotta and sweetened with citron.

But I didn’t have any of those foods at the ready so our meal consisted of aromatic braised duck legs served with a bulgur wheat and mixed vegetable salad, sweet and sour cipollini onions, and a side of Roman-style spinach.

You can always find duck in some form in our larder, whether it’s Moulard breasts, whole legs, or sausages. In choosing the legs, which I often prepare as confit, I wanted to try something different, something more aromatic where the braising liquid could later be used to steep the bulgur and to lightly glaze the legs when finished in the oven. Using a combination of both aromatic vegetables and spices along with some honey for a touch of sweetness and small dried Calabrian chilies for a little heat, I prepared the braising liquid in water rather than stock.

Once the cooking was complete the rich broth was strained, and as much of the rendered fat as possible was ladled away. The remaining broth was then heated, with some used to prepare the bulgur for the salad while the remainder was cooked down to the consistency of a light syrup and used to finish the duck legs.

 

Braised Duck Legs in an Aromatic Broth

Ingredients
2 large duck legs (leg and thigh attached), skin on
1 large onion, peeled and cut into eighths leaving the root end in place
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
2 large celery ribs, roughly chopped
3 to 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 small whole red chilies, or to taste
2 quarts of water
1 large cinnamon stick broken in half
3 to 4 star anise
½ generous teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon toasted whole fennel seeds
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1/3 cup honey (many options)

Method
With the exception of the duck legs, place all the ingredients and the water in a large stockpot and bring to a gentle boil. Add the duck legs, lower the heat to a steady simmer, place a plate or another pot lid over the duck legs to keep them submerged so they braise evenly, and simmer for 1½ hours until the meat is very tender, but not falling off the bone.

Carefully remove the legs to a platter, tent, and set aside. Strain the braising liquid into a large bowl, removing all the solids. Ladle off as much of the rendered fat as possible and return the strained liquid to the cleaned stockpot. Heat the liquid to a boil, ladling out 2¼ cups and set aside to be used for the preparation of the bulgur.

Continue to cook down the remaining liquid until it reaches a syrup-like consistency to be drizzled over the duck legs before finishing them under the broiler in the oven, which will crisp and caramelize the skin.

Duck legs, after braise, drizzled with the syrup

Duck legs, from the broiler

Bulgur Wheat and Mixed Roasted and Sautéed Vegetable Salad

Bulgur is an ancient grain that has been predominant in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a main ingredient in foods prepared in countries that included Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, and it has been recorded that the Babylonians, Hebrews, and Romans ate the grain as well.

Bulgur is a precooked and dried cracked wheat used as a food source long before wheat was ground into flour to make breads and later pasta. It can be compared to how rice is used today—in soups, stews, salads, stuffing, and pilafs. However, it has less fat, less calories, and more fiber than an equal amount of rice.

It is also compared to farro, another ancient wheat product again popular today and often found in Italian cuisine. They are both great sources of protein, fiber, and nutrients, with farro higher in calories, fat, protein, fiber, and having the edge with vitamins, and some nutrients.

Either grain could have been used in this dish with similar results, but it just so happened that in restocking my pantry I found a box of bulgur and wanted to use it in a salad to accompany the Easter meal.

Many of you are probably familiar with the classic Lebanese tabbouleh salad—the lemony parsley and herb salad that includes some bulgur rather than a bulgur salad mixed with parsley and herbs. Lemon was not the flavor I was after as I wanted the bulgur to be the main ingredient in the salad, punctuated instead with a medley of roasted and sautéed vegetables, along with some fresh herbs and a little spice. The recipe that follows turned out to be a flavorful and colorful underlay for the braised duck legs, however this salad could easily stand on its own, especially for those who follow a more vegetable-centric diet.

Ingredients
2 cups coarse ground bulgur wheat
2¼ cups stock (braising liquid from the duck) or water
1 small eggplant, ends removed, large dice, skin on, set aside for roasting
1 large red bell pepper, sliced down the center through the stem. Remove the stem, seeds, and ribs, then set aside for roasting.
1 small zucchini squash plus 1 small yellow squash, ends removed, quartered lengthwise then large diced and set aside to be sautéed
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, skinned and thinly sliced
3 large dried figs, stemmed, cut into a small dice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 to 3 scallions, root end removed and both green and white parts diced fine
1 15-oz can of chickpeas, drained, rinsed, placed in a bowl, drizzled with a generous tablespoon of olive oil and mixed with 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika or Spanish pimentón until coated
2 fresh oregano sprigs, leaves removed
2 fresh mint sprigs, leaves removed and torn
Pinch of red chili flakes to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the vegetables first. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the diced eggplant in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Place the halved red pepper cut side down in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil. Roast both the eggplant and the pepper until easily pierced with a fork. Set the eggplant aside to cool and place the pepper in a bowl covered with clear film. The pepper will steam as it cools so that the skin is easily removed. When cooled, remove and discard the skin but remember to save all the juices that have collected from the roasting. Chop the pepper into large pieces.

In a large sauté pan, large enough to eventually hold all the vegetable ingredients, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking add the zucchini and yellow squash, stirring to coat and sauté until the squashes begin to color. Add some salt and pepper to season and then the garlic, figs, and wine vinegar, stirring to thoroughly combine. Sauté until the garlic softens and the vinegar evaporates.

Fold in the eggplant, roasted pepper and juices, scallions, chickpeas, herbs, chili flakes, and a little more salt and pepper. Taste and correct seasoning as needed, remove the pan from the stove and set aside until the vegetable mix is ready to combine with the bulgur.

To prepare the bulgur, place it in a large work bowl, heat the stock or water, and pour over the bulgur and cover the bowl with a towel. Let it rest for 20 to 25 minutes until most all the liquid has been absorbed. Stir with a fork.

Add the vegetable mix and gently fold it into the bulgur until thoroughly combined. Again, cover the bowl with a towel and set aside for another 30 minutes allowing the flavors to meld before serving.

Vegetable sauté and bulgur

Bulgur-vegetable salad

The remaining recipes are for the two vegetable side dishes I included in this meal. However, these dishes could be included in any meal as a side dish or even part of a larger vegetable antipasto course.

 

Cipollini Agrodolce
Little Onions—Sweet and Sour

The cipollini onion is a small, flattened, oval-shaped variety with a slightly sweet taste, and wrapped in a pale yellowish or reddish outer skin. They are equally good either braised on the stovetop or oven roasted, and best served at room temperature with salumi, sharp cheese, and olives in an antipasto or as they are in this meal, as a side condiment similar as to how a chutney might be used.

I recall as a youngster being introduced to cipollini onions by an aunt from the Sicilian side of the family. But curiously, she did not serve them agrodolce style, a taste I learned years later, that Sicilians favor with many dishes. Needless to say, at the time, the cipollini onions I was introduced to were too bitter for my inexperienced palate.

This is an ancient preparation before there was refined sugar to sweeten the dish. Cooks would instead use grapes that were reduced to a syrup or used the local honey to provide the sweetness. Since I don’t spend a lot of time cooking grapes into syrup these days, I prefer to use honey to sweeten my take on the agrodolce. For me the finished dish becomes more interesting using honey because the final flavor and level of sweetness takes on the personality of the particular honey used—wildflower versus clover versus chestnut versus orange blossom … you get the idea!

Ingredients
13 cipollini onions, peeled
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 medium sweet onion, finely minced
3 tablespoons of honey, or to taste
3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Red wine vinegar and water (50/50)

Method
Place the unpeeled cipollini in a pot of boiling water for 8 minutes, drain and cool. Once cool enough to handle, make a small slit in the outer skin that allows that layer to be removed easily. Snip the long top if it is still attached, but keep the root end in tact. Set aside.

Over medium-high heat warm the oil in a sauté pan with high sides. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, sauté the minced onion and garlic until they begin to soften. Reduce the heat to medium and add the cipollini, stirring to coat. Drizzle the honey over and around and pour in the vinegar and water to cover the cipollini by half, again stirring to thoroughly combine the ingredients and dissolve the honey.

Simmer slowly for 1 to 1½ hours, turning the cipollini from time to time, until all the liquid has evaporated, and the cipollini are soft and glazed in a dark, sweet sauce.

Plate and serve at room temperature.

Cipollini agrodolce

 

Roman-Style Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts

There is something about the combination of fresh spinach, raisins, and pine nuts— they just go together. I don’t know if the Romans invented this dish, however I have often read that it is served this way in the Roman trattorias around the city as I would believe throughout much of Italy.

It is a dish that can be put together quickly and the spinach almost cooks itself.

In my interpretation I like to:

  • Bloom the raisins in either Marsala wine or red vermouth to give them a little extra flavor
  • Lightly toast the pine nuts to bring out their natural resins
  • Use butter along with the olive oil because the butter softens the spinach bite while the oil prevents the butter from burning
  • Add a pinch of red chili flakes for punctuation

Don’t use what is sold as “baby spinach,” but instead look for the more mature, savoyed-leaf variety such as Bloomsdale or Emperor for example. Although they will generally have thick stems that need to be removed before cooking, these varieties will remain firmer when cooked and present a better-finished dish.

Ingredients
2 pounds leaf spinach, stems removed and thoroughly washed
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons olive oil plus 2 tablespoons butter
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes

Method
Wash the spinach in several changes of cold water to remove all the sand and grit. Spin dry but leave some residual water clinging to the leaves as that will aid in the sauté of the spinach. Set aside.

In a small sauté pan warm several tablespoons of either Marsala or red vermouth. Add the raisins, remove from the heat and allow the raisins to bloom and absorb most all of the liquid. Set aside.

In another small sauté pan, add the pine nuts and gently dry toast over medium heat, tossing from time to time until just beginning to brown. Remove from the heat and set a side.

In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat melt the butter in the olive oil. When the butter is melted and begins to foam add the spinach, tossing to coat as it begins to soften and wilt.

Sprinkle over the minced garlic and toss again so that the garlic is distributed within the spinach.

Toss in the raisins and the pine nuts, again mixing to distribute. Season with salt, pepper, and the chili flakes to taste, toss once more, and serve immediately.

Roman-style spinach sauté

Untraditional, perhaps, but glad to have my kitchen back and cooking again. I hope you try one of these recipes either as separate dishes, or all as the complete meal presented here.

Plated

Although I did not include a dessert here, I am confident that you will find a way to include something sweet to round out the end of your meal.

Eat Well. Be Well.
DM
There are no new classic recipes . . . the one you prepare is the right one, and it will always be delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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