There is no comparison between the eggplant I buy in the grocery store and fresh-picked eggplant from my garden. The garden produce is so sweet with no bitter aftertaste. We had our first eggplant from the yard this week.
Whenever I have eggplant I think of my dear Uncle Frank, my mother’s brother. He made the most delicious caponata I have ever eaten. For those of you who do not know it, caponata is a sweet and sour Sicilian eggplant dish. It can be a side dish or an appetizer. We generally eat it cold, although I rarely have the self control to wait until it chills. I eat it warm straight out of the pan. It usually has capers in it. Uncle Frank used eggplant he grew in his New Jersey garden. I could never get my garden produce to taste as sweet as his. I concluded it must be his soil and asked once if I could take some of his dirt back in my suitcase. He just laughed at me. He had a small plot, but he grew the biggest basil plants I had ever seen. He had peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, Italian long beans, and cucuzza.
Last summer when we were visiting New Jersey I had a feeling on my last day there that I should take my kids over to Uncle Frank and Aunt Fran’s for the afternoon. My children were thrilled to spend part of the day with them. They helped pick vegetables from the garden and played bocce balls with Uncle Frank in the yard. It was a wonderful day. I am so glad we did it because in February my sweet Uncle was diagnosed with liver cancer and passed away 6 days later. I miss him. I haven’t adjusted to his absence. There have been so many times the last few months when I had a question about the garden or the family and I got ready to dial the phone only to realize I can no longer reach him.
Uncle Frank sent me home last summer with Italian long bean seeds and cucuzza seeds. It makes me happy to go into my yard and see the produce growing from the seeds he gave me. He had two secrets to good caponata. He said make sure you boil the celery first so it is nice and soft, and microwave the vinegar and sugar mixture so the sugar is completely dissolved.
Uncle Frank’s Caponata
1 large eggplant or 2 medium, peeled & diced
6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 c. diced celery – boiled for 7-10 minutes until tender
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (14 oz.) can diced tomatoes with juice
1 (8 oz.) can Hunts tomato sauce
2 Tbsp. capers, rinsed and drained
2 Tbsp. sugar
4 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Combine sugar and vinegar in a small bowl and microwave for a minute. Stir to dissolve sugar. Set aside. In a frying pan heat 3 Tbsp. olive oil. Saute eggplant until lightly browned, but not mushy. Add salt and pepper and cook 5 minutes. Remove eggplant and set aside. Add the remaining oil to the pan. Saute onion until soft and golden – 10 minutes. Add boiled celery and garlic and cook 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce. Cover and cook until tomatoes have cooked down a bit and the sauce is a little thicker – 10-15 minutes. Add eggplant and saute 5 minutes. Add a little water if it seems too thick and gloppy. Add capers and stir. Add sugar and vinegar mixture. Let cook 5-7 minutes longer. You do not want the eggplant to get mushy; it should be just tender. Serves 6-8.