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


mqsmith said...

I enjoyed this post quite a bit: thank you for the reflections. There is a fantastic cookbook, Tide and Thyme, celebrating Annapolis which has some good recipes. A friend of mine gave me From a Monastery Kitchen which is interesting. What I would really like is a cookbook devoted to pinto beans, for I just bought a twenty-five pound bag for the fall. Extra note: I just finished canning white grape jelly and a field berry/apple jam--exciting home canning for the evening!

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Mattie: I'll look for "Tide and Thyme" (though I'm guessing it waits for no man...). Re the pinto beans, I can't be much help, but the cookbook market being what it is, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a book or two devoted exclusively to them. Another cookbook I picked up a couple years ago, and have been meaning to mention, is one called "Hollyhocks and Radishes," by Bonnie Stewart Mickelson. It's another regional book, recipes from northern Michigan. Easy but inspired, appetizing northwoods cookery. She calls whitefish "the princess of the lakes"; love that.

Interestingly, both it and "The Country Gourmet" seem to be the authors' only full-length cookbooks. I appreciate cookbook writers who say what they have to say, then move along, don't try to make an industry out of it (which is not to say there mightn't be a "Trout Caviar" sequel!).

Congrats on the canning. I have a nice crock of fermented vegetables going, and have made some sour dills, but that's about it. Waiting for my apples and crabs to come ripe to get busy.

Best~ Brett

el said...

I usually hit the cookbooks when I am feeling rotten or uninspired. Still, it's Deborah Madison all the way as far as my own cooking goes, even though I eat meat now...there's something about squeezing the last molecule of flavor out of humble veg that truly appeals. Still. Even though I could cheat and add flesh, if it can't stand on its own without, it's probably crap.

And yes, caponata is more like a relish than a soupy stew like la rat. Italians like their courses one after another and in Sicily and southern Italy those tomato family mixes are of a piece, usually served up as a room-temp appetizer atop bread (but you knew that already).

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: I'm not sure how I've managed to avoid Deborah Madison all these years. Could be that I was steering away from anything with vegetarian connotations. I'll have to look her up. And I agree that vegetable cookery can be both engagingly challenging and wholly satisfying. While sometimes it seems that everything's better with bacon, other times the meat and smoke get in the way. Especially at this time of year, you really want to let the veggies have their day.