Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Bide-A-Wee Caponata (With Reflections on Unexpected Influences)
I find it amusing and instructive to look back over the years, think of how I cook today, how I cooked back when, and consider how I got from there to here. I can see now a whole pile of extremely various factors: Mom & Dad influences; my late-teen swing into vegetarianism; time spent on the east coast, and in Virginia; certainly my year in China, and travels in France, but also time spent on the shores of Lake Superior, and a bike trip in Nova Scotia. People I met influenced me greatly, as well, and so did television cooking shows (I've mentioned Jacques Pépin's Today's Gourmet more than once, but I also fell in love with Madeleine Kamman through her long-ago cooking series), and books.
Among the books that have had the biggest impact on how I approach cooking, I'd love to be able to say that it was conscientious study of the methods of Escoffier and Careme that formed my culinary thinking, with peripheral influences of Basques, Tuscan, and Catalan gastronomy--but, you know, I'd be lyin'. And while I've had Mastering the Art... on my shelf for many years, I mostly pick it up to put it down again. I used to own a Joel Robuchon book written by Patricia Wells, Simply French that was so absurdly misnamed, it got me all rankled every time I picked it up--the recipes therein are simple if you own a truffle farm, and a flock of fattened fowl to harvest foie gras, and then there's the caviar.... I finally had to get rid of it.
But there's one modest, unassuming cookbook that I first purchased decades ago, and that has stayed relevant to me all that time. I've mentioned it here before, The Country Gourmet, by Gil and Sherril Roth. The Roths were New York chefs transplanted to North Carolina, where they set about growing most of their food, and procuring what they couldn't produce from local sources. In other words, they anticipated the whole local-seasonal eating trend, with a strong strain of self-sufficiency in the mix. The book is arranged more or less by the seasons, and it ranges from the stalwart basics to the oddly idiosyncratic--there's a chapter devoted to a dinner of Indian dishes, for instance, which still strikes me as odd when I'm flipping through the book, though I've tried some of those recipes, and they're good.
I suppose I just found The Country Gourmet at exactly the right time in my development as a cook; it amazes me to think of all the things I learned from it. The bread recipes with variations expanded my bread baking horizons, and the homemade pasta section is still a go-to source for me, both for basic recipes and excellent rustic preparations like pasta with cabbage and onions--this book also introduced me to pasta alla carbonara. Here's where I learned how to make sauerkraut in jars, picked up a winter-time staple that is Portuguese kale soup, and even a dog biscuit recipe that I used in our Real Bread years, and which earned a devoted following (right, Jen --or should I ask Lily...?).
The personal tone of the Roths writing is utterly engaging. They're not pushing any agenda or working some tricksy angle--they just share their enthusiasm for good, honest food and the joys of connecting with the seasons through gardening, preserving, and cooking. Amazingly, you can pick up a copy for one red cent, plus shipping, of course. I recommend you do so.
All of this is a (typically) roundabout introduction to a sweet and sour eggplant and green apple relish I whipped up this weekend, Bide-A-Wee caponata. My first exposure to caponata was through a recipe in The Country Gourmet. Caponata is a Sicilian dish made with eggplant, tomato, olives, capers, often raisins or currants. Having not been to Sicily, I'm not exactly sure how it's served there. I see numerous references to it as a component of an antipasti platter, and it's more often referred to as a relish than a vegetable side dish, from rather brief research. It's often referred to as "Italian ratatouille," but I think that's misleading, as rataouille can be a meal in itself, and I don't think caponata would ever be served thay way.
The Bide-A-Wee caponata recipe presented here is very much my own interpretation, a Mediterranean-meets-Dunn County deal, fer sure. To start with, I omitted two of the constant ingredients in every caponata recipe I've seen--tomatoes and olives. My capers were salted milkweed flower buds, and the fruit component, chopped green apples. My vinegar was not balsamic but apple cider, and the sweetness to match the sour: maple syrup, of course.
For the green apples I looked for ones that were starting to ripen--not the kind so tart and astringent you have to spit it out before you've even chewed. In fact, I used three kinds of apples: one that was becoming sweet, but had little complexity; one still quite tart but developing interesting flavors; one tart and extremely aromatic, with the smell of excellent apple cider. That said, you could make this with one kind of really firm, tart-sweet apple.
Otherwise it's pretty straight-forward. Everything cooks in one pan; it's best if made a bit ahead to let the flavors blend, and served at room temperature. Given that we had already strayed very far from the traditional preparation of caponata, we served it idiosyncratically, as well: first on tacos of flash-fried thin-sliced boneless beef short ribs; then on chicken sandwiches; finally, the last few bites, on crackers. It's great stuff, complex in flavor and texture, silky and crunchy by turns, tart, sweet, smoky--compelling, I dare say. I'm planning to make a big batch soon, freeze portions for the winter. It's a vibrant taste of summer that I know will be welcome come January.
I'd love to hear about what cookbooks, or other sources of inspiration, have stayed with you over the years, unexpectedly, or not.
Bide-A-Wee Caponata: Sweet & Sour Eggplant, Green Apple, Salted Milkweed Relish
Makes about a cup
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 hot Hungarian chile, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 rib celery, chopped
3/4 cup eggplant, skin on, in 1/3-inch dice
3/4 cup green apple or crisp tart-sweet apple (see above), skin on, in 1/3-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon salted milkweed buds, rinsed (or use small capers, prefereably salt-packed)
salt and pepper
In a medium saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, celery, and chile, and cook over medium-high until wilted. Add the eggplant, apple, and a good pinch of salt. Cook until the eggplant is soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Add the vinegar, 1/4 cup water, and the maple syrup. Simmer gently, uncovered, for 5 minutes, until most of the water is gone. Remove the pan from the heat and add another good pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and the milkweed buds or capers--save a few buds back to garnish the top. Set aside at room temperature until you're ready to serve; if you'll be serving it a day or more later, refrigerate, then bring to room temp before serving. Drizzle one tablespoon olive oil over the top just before serving.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw