Caponata is the great room-temperature mix of eggplant and other vegetables that is sometimes called an Italian ratatouille. But it differs greatly from its French cousin in one chief way; it is a member of an ancient classification of dishes called agro dolce -- those made with sweet-and-sour flavoring. Though most Americans are familiar only with the caponata marketed by Progresso in small cans, there are many versions of the caponata in Italy. Most are from Sicily ... and my favorites of all are from Pantelleria, the great caper-growing island off the west coast of Sicily. So it's no surprise that this recipe has a healthy dose of capers in it! It's a wonderful appetizer, served with crusty bread and, perhaps, other antipasto items.
2 medium eggplants (about 1 3/4 pounds total)
salt to taste
2 large red onions, peeled, halved through the root and sliced very thin
4 celery stalks (including the leaves), cut in thin curled slices
3/4 cup olive oil
a 28-ounce can of plum tomatoes
1 cup green and brine-cured black olives (preferably Sicilian, about 6 ounces), pitted and coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons capers (soak salted for a minute or so to taste)
4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup red wine vinegar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar, or more to taste
minced fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish
1. Roast eggplant whole in 325-degree oven. Remove when tender, about 30 minutes. Cut into big chunks (with skin) and salt lightly.
2. While the eggplant is cooking, soak the sliced onions in a large bowl of cold water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain the onions and dry on kitchen towels.
3. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet with a lid over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until very soft but not browned. Add the tomatoes (squeezing), olives, capers, pine nuts, and raisins. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.
4. Heat the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil in another large skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the celery to the skillet, along with the tomato mixture. Stir in the vinegar and the sugar, and cook for 2 minutes to evaporate the vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Bring to room temperature.
5. When ready to serve, place on a platter and garnish with the parsley.
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