Scare Up a Taste of Summer

Following September’s brutal heat wave, I am ready for fall. I’m ready for a tower of pumpkins on the porch; a wreath on the front door;  a roaring fire in the fireplace and flickering candles throughout the living room; a pot of soup simmering on the stove; and a fluffy down comforter in the bedroom.

But maybe not so fast. The farmers’ market still features a few delicious remnants of summer that merit our attention. When long-simmered to silky perfection, end-of-season vine-ripened tomatoes, firm and shiny eggplant, crisp bell peppers, and pungent garlic conjure up the flavors of summer without sacrificing the essence of autumn.

The French celebrate the dwindling harvest with ratatouille, a summer vegetable stew; but Sicilians make caponata, a masterful example of agrodolce—an addictive blend of sweet and sour flavors. So popular is the latter, ersatz versions can be purchased in jars and tins; and many a Sicilian mama cans her own to be enjoyed throughout the coming months. In a pinch you can always make it from scratch year ‘round—using canned tomato products—but it will be little more than a poor imitation of the following recipe.

Eggplant caponata is rustic by nature, so there are no fancy knife cuts to master or veggies to peel or seed. Relish the aromas as it simmers, then refrigerate for a while to develop the flavors. (It will keep several days in the refrigerator, and is actually best if made a day or two in advance.)If you’re looking for a little added crunch, top with a shower of toasted pine nuts just before serving.

Serve caponata at cool room temperature as a dip or spread, with celery sticks, California endive, crackers, or pita bread. (Crostini topped with a generous smear of California goat cheese and a spoonful of caponata is life-changing.) It can also be served as a condiment alongside plain grilled chicken or fish; as a zesty topping for a simple pasta dish; or as an unforgettable sandwich spread.

Caponata makes a bewitching snack for adults to nibble between trick-or-treaters on Halloween, as the garlic will surely keep the vampires at bay. Give this concoction a bloody name if you must—just be sure to eat, drink, and be scary!

Farmers’ Market Caponata

1 onion, chopped

1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red chili flakes, or more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

California olive oil

3 or 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 large eggplant (about 1 1/4 pounds), chopped

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 large celery rib, finely chopped

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

4 very ripe medium tomatoes (about 12 ounces total), coarsely chopped, juices reserved

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted olives, such as black Kalamata or green cerignolas, or a combination

2 tablespoons drained capers

1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, marjoram or oregano, and basil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

Toasted pine nuts (optional)

Lemon wedges for serving

 

  1. Place a 12- to 14-inch skillet or saute pan* over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onion, red pepper flakes, and 5 or 6 grindings of black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

 

  1. Stir in the garlic and cook just until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

 

  1. Add the eggplant, bell pepper, and celery and cook until the vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes. If the mixture starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a tablespoon or two of water to loosen things up.

 

  1. Stir in the tomatoes, olives, capers, and herbs. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

 

  1. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste, adding more salt, pepper, and lemon juice as needed. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days. Freeze for longer storage.

 

  1. To serve, let return to cool room temperature for an hour or so. Taste again, adjusting the seasonings if needed. Mound the caponata onto a plate, drizzle liberally with olive oil, and sprinkle with pine nuts, if desired. Surround with lemon wedges, for guests to squeeze. Makes about 4 cups.

*A shallow pan, like a skillet or saute pan, speeds the cooking process by allowing the cooking juices to reduce quickly. Lacking such a pan, go ahead and use a Dutch oven or other similar pan. It will just take a bit longer to cook.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad & Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.org. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.