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There’s a legendary association between summertime and the Mediterranean. Every cuisine from the region features emphatically the essence of fresh simplicity--ingredients prepared with the foundational seasoning of lemon, olive oil, and salt. Today we’re going to go over a particular favorite of mine, caponata, which highlights some of the incredible crops we’ve got coming in. It’s finally cooling down enough to fire up your oven, so get it rocking and we’ll get a dessert in too!
Caponata is Sicilian in origin, and while delicious on its own, can be used very well as a base accompaniment to anything from polenta to chicken. If you’re wanting chicken, for instance, don’t overcomplicate it, in keeping with the Mediterranean theme and to allow the caponata to shine. Season it with salt, grill or sear it, then dress with lemon and herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and sage. If you’re looking to keep your meal vegan, fried polenta cakes, large chunky mushrooms such as lion’s mane or black oyster are good options, treated similarly with salt, lemon, and herbs. Caponata can also go very well with fish--white such as trout or oily like mackerel. One of my favorite proteins to pair is squid--cleaned and quickly grilled.
For the caponata, you’ll want to start by getting a skillet or grill ripping hot while you cut up some eggplant into large chunks. The eggplant will braise in the sauce, so keeping the chunks large will help them hold up--I typically dice into two-inch cubes. You’ll want to cut these fairly close to when you’re starting to cook lest the eggplant oxidizes, so if you’d like to get all of your mise-en-place together first, skip down and make sure you’ve got the rest of the ingredients ready. Once your pan is smoking, add a splash of oil and generously salt the eggplant. Sear the chunks hard and fast, getting as much color on the eggplant as you can whilst ensuring it doesn’t get soggy or fully cook through. Reserve while you build the sauce.
Dice onions, celery, and red bell peppers, mince a small amount of garlic, and pick/chop some herbs--parsley is most traditional but feel free to add thyme, tarragon, and basil. You can add vegetables like carrots and potatoes if you’d like as well, but for this we’ll stick to the basics. You’ll want some pantry goods--red wine vinegar, capers, olives, and some sort of sugar--honey or brown sugar work well. You’ll want a few lemons and olive oil for finishing, and while I’ll just be seasoning with salt and a bit of black pepper, Aleppo pepper and asafoetida are excellent additions. The primary ingredient of the dish is tomatoes--while the type doesn’t matter quite so much, I like using a combination of diced or crushed heirlooms with some blistered cherry tomatoes to contrast textures. Back to the cook!
To your still-hot skillet--of which I typically use a stainless-steel--sweat down your peppers, celery, and onions until they start to stick. Add your garlic--you don’t need much--and continue to cook until the pan forms the slightest bit of fond. Immediately add a generous pour of vinegar and enough sugar to sweeten it gently. Let the vinegar reduce slightly before adding your tomatoes. Let this simmer for a few minutes, then season and add a healthy (or unhealthy, rather) few glugs of olive oil along with half of your herbs, capers, and olives. Check your seasoning again, add your eggplant, and braise for about fifteen-to-twenty minutes. I typically do this in a hot (450-degree) oven, uncovered, but you can just leave it in your pan if you’d like. After the braise is done, your eggplant should be fully cooked but retain its form, the sauce should be tangy, lightly sweet, and have a good balance between the capers and tomatoes. Finish with fresh lemon, more capers or olives if desired, and plenty of herbs. The caponata is now ready to serve with your protein of choice, hot or cold.
A great companion to the caponata is a simple cucumber salad. Use a mandoline or vegetable peeler to make long strips of your cucumber--I prefer English--and toss in a light dressing of toasted cumin, lemon, and olive oil. You can add olives, greens, and tomatoes if you’d like, as well as cheeses such as feta or mozzarella. As always, add a hearty quantity of chopped herbs--parsley, cilantro, and mint are a great trio for this.
Let’s say you’ve got your oven going for the caponata and protein, have some time and extra ingredients, and want a sweet, refreshing treat for dessert. Here’s a great one! Start with one pound of flour, pastry or AP, two tablespoons of baking powder, a pinch of salt, and one-half cup of sugar. Mix this together thoroughly. Using a box grater, dust two-thirds of a pound of unsalted butter in the flour mixture and shred, periodically dusting the grater, butter, and its shreds in the mix. Make a few passes on the grater, toss through the flour, and repeat until you’re left with many shreds of butter coated in flour. Give this a few tosses and make a well in the center. Take 9 oz of ice-cold water--I typically use sparkling water such as LaCroix--pour half a can to start, then add more as needed. Mix the dough gently using a folding motion to form a shaggy dough. Be careful not to work this too much. Once the dough comes together and is not sticky to the touch, gently form into a rectangular block and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate (or freeze to save time) for about thirty minutes or until firm. Very lightly flour the block and a rolling pin, roll out thinly and fold into thirds, rotate ninety degrees and roll out again, repeating three times. Refrigerate for another thirty minutes, and repeat three times. Once the dough’s been laminated, it’ll be ready to use, and can also be frozen for later use. One-half of this batch is enough to fill a cookie sheet, or a nine-by-thirteen inch cake pan.
Take your dough and roll it out to fill a cookie sheet, on parchment paper. Put another layer of paper on top with either dry beans or another cookie sheet, and bake for ten minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit or until cooked but not browned. Remove the beans/weight and top paper and return the crust to the oven for ten more minutes or until crisp. Let this cool and figure out a tart filling. Take some berries--fresh is great here--tossing them in lemon juice and sugar. Let this sit for a while while you chop up some thyme and basil. Place the stems from those in a small pot with a sprig of rosemary, add a cup of sugar, and wet it with equal parts lemon juice and water, just adding enough to dissolve the sugar. Bring this to a boil and keep an eye on it, swirling gently but not stirring, until it barely begins to turn to a golden color. Immediately remove from the heat, strain out one-third of the contents into a chilled bowl or stand mixer, and to that bowl add one quart of cold whipping cream. Whip that to soft peaks and reserve. Strain your berry liquid into one-half of the remaining herb caramel, saving the rest for garnish, and bring that back to the boil, reducing until it coats a spoon. To this, add cornstarch slurry--one-to-one cornstarch and water--splash-by splash while stirring the berry sauce vigorously, until the mixture reaches the thickness of honey. Strain out into a chilled bowl, let cool to room temperature, and toss your berries through. Now you’re ready to build a simple tart--this works for almost any fruit--so have fun experimenting and changing up fillings--we’ll go over pastry cream, fruit curd, and others another time. Take your berry mixture and spread it into your crust. Add some of your chopped herbs, then return to the oven for fifteen minutes or until set. Once it’s cooled--again I cheat using a freezer to save time--cover with a layer of whipped cream. If you want to get fancy with your presentation you can drizzle over everything with your remaining herb caramel or scatter with picked herbs. You can do this exact thing with most fruits--so have fun with it!
That’s all for this week--keep on cooking!
- Cut eggplant, sear hard.
- Sweat peppers and onions, add garlic, deglaze with vinegar. Add tomatoes and other components. Cook down.
- Add eggplant to sauce and braise.
- Serve with protein of choice, garnish with herbs and extra capers/olives.
Berries & Cream Tart
- Make dough--shred butter into flour mix, laminate.
- Make herb caramel.
- Whip cream, thicken berry liquid.
- MIx filling together, roll out dough, fill and bake tart.
- Cool tart and top with cream.