Once upon a time there was an eggplant named Black Beauty: a plump, slightly lobed, shiny purple-black fruit. She was my go-to for making the popular Sicilian condiment caponata. I grew up eating this aperitivo made from chopped eggplant and celery seasoned with vinegar, sugar and capers, which give it a sweet-and-sour taste and the consistency of dark-brown relish. We’d eat this with an antipasto of cured meats, olives, pickled vegetables and mushrooms, artichoke hearts, hot peppers, fennel, various cheeses and crispy Italian bread.
Then one day, I came across an eggplant at Balsam Farms: Fairy Tale. That was her name! She was a slender heirloom variety—tender and sweet—with purple and white stripes and less bitter than Black Beauty. It was lust at first site. Balsam Farms had other alluring eggplant varieties, such as: Hansel, small, dark purple, slender and non-bitter; Gretel, same shape and flavor as Hansel but solid white; Turkish orange, which is shaped like a baseball with orange and green striping; and Kermit, also shaped like a baseball, which is good for curries with its firm green and white flesh. As a rule of thumb, long, slender eggplants are meatier. The petites are more tender and mild and can be eaten with the skins, and generally speaking, the white varieties are sweeter.
The colors of these unusual varieties lured me from my beloved Black Beauty. It was time to turn Fairy Tale into caponata, so I broke a few rules that I hope will not make my grandparents roll and grumble in their grave.
I replaced the Black Beauty with the Fairy Tale eggplant and roasted it (instead of fried) and added cherry tomatoes to highlight the peak of the summer harvest. Roasting helps the vegetables keep their shape beautifully, very different from the traditional relish style. The touch of sugar and tomato paste added the perfect sweetness, while red wine vinegar and capers and olives added that certain salty tang. Celery creates a crunch while the toasted pignoli nuts provide a rich counterpoint to the cooked vegetables. It was love at first bite. Top this with locally caught striped bass or tilefish, and you have a meal.
But, sometimes, the simplest way to eat it is on top of crispy bread.
If you have no time to prepare your own you are in luck. Chef Ryan Keough of Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas at the Gallery at Westbury Plaza in Garden City, makes caponata during the summer and his eggplant choice is the Black Beauty. Like my grandparents, he sautés the eggplant in the pan right from the start and adds golden raisins and a red bell pepper. For the sweet and sour taste, he uses balsamic instead of red wine vinegar and a touch of brown sugar. Then he tops off a piece of ciabatta crostini with a dollop of the caponata. The rest of the menu is seasonally crafted beautiful small authentic Italian bites (“spuntino” in Italian means a bite or small snack)— that focus on fresh local ingredients from Long Island and the tri-state area.
Another farm that grows stunning eggplants is Windy Acres in Calverton. Farmer Diana Yakaboski grows: Clara, white and teardrop shaped; neon, elongated and slender with pink-purple neon skin; little finger, slender eggplants with glossy black skin and delicate flavor; and Beatrice, bright violet and round.
This summer keep an eye out for the Black Beauty, but when you come across the not-so-usual eggplants be forewarned: Your Fairy Tale might come true.
Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas: Eggplant Caponata Bruschetta Recipe
2 fluid ounces extra-virgin olive oil
2 eggplants, diced small *
1 cup small dice red bell pepper
1 cup small dice celery
1 cup small dice white onion
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
3 tablespoons capers
½ cup golden raisins
⅓ cup brown sugar
8 fluid ounces balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons chiffonade fresh basil
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 loaf ciabatta bread**
Heat oil in large shallow pan. Add eggplant and sauté for 3 minutes on medium to high heat.
After eggplant has slightly browned, add pepper, celery, onions and garlic to the pan. Sauté vegetables for another 7 to 10 minutes until lightly browned and evenly incorporated.
Add capers, golden raisins, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar to pan and cook down for additional 5 minutes.
Turn heat off and finish with fresh basil, salt and pepper. Remove from pot and chill on flat tray.
Slice ciabatta bread and toast both sides on hot grille. Place the eggplant caponata on top of grilled crostini and garnish with olive oil and fresh basil.
*Eggplant Selection: When selecting, look for a firm, glossy skin that isn’t broken. Size and color may vary among types from a bright to deep purple. Also eggplant should feel medium to heavy for its size.
**French baguette bread works well, too.
Laura’s Caponata Recipe
2 pounds Fairy Tale (or any available variety) eggplant, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound cherry tomatoes, cut in half
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons sea salt, divided
3 tablespoons pignoli nuts
1 large onion, chopped
¾ cup celery ribs and fronds, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons of tomato paste
3 tablespoons of water
3 tablespoons capers
¾ cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of natural sugar
1 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons chopped basil
Place the cubed eggplant on one baking sheet and the cherry tomatoes halves on another. Drizzle both with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Place in a 400° oven and bake for 30 minutes or until tender; set aside.
Lightly toast pignoli nuts in a small frying pan until fragrant; set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven pot or large pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Then add the celery and cook for 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes more. Add water to pan and stir until incorporated.
Then gently fold the eggplant into the pan mixture and cook for 2 minutes. Add the roasted cherry tomatoes, capers, olives, vinegar, sugar, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper; fold in gently and cook for 2 minutes. Then add the toasted pignoli nuts, basil and gently fold in.
Remove from heat; let cool completely.
Note: Caponata keeps for up to one week refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before serving.