What do I love most about Italian cooks? I love the way we “wing it.” When sharing recipes, we don’t usually give detailed instructions, unless baking. We share a general idea about how the dish is made. Whether it’s your grandmother’s recipe or your girlfriend’s, chances are that there won’t be much information on measurements or timing, if it comes from an Italian cook. I have so many recipes from friends and family, where the ingredients are listed without telling you specifically “how much,” or “how long” to cook it. As Italians, we assume that you can figure this out on your own, perhaps adjusting a little to your own taste. And besides, how can you go wrong with garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, etc, etc? Our choices of ingredients are always delicious on their own! It doesn’t much matter what you do with them. They will produce something very tasty, no matter what.
So I’m always touched when I ask a friend of Italian descent for a recipe (not baking of course), and my mouth waters as I read the list of ingredients, and then I notice how simple the directions are. THEN I notice that not all the ingredients are quantified, and I’ll have to use my own judgment as to how long I need to cook it. But that doesn’t stop me! I proceed as I see fit, and the outcome is always wonderful.
This was the case with my friend Marianna’s caponata. She brought this dish to my house for a dinner party one evening, and we all loved it. It’s very different from mine (check my non traditional version of caponata in the archives), but definitely more traditional in taste. I was so happy that she shared this recipe with me first time I made it, it was delicious, but it didn’t look like Marianna’s. I didn’t peel the eggplant. It was absolutely fantastic, but not hers. The next time, I doubled the amount of tomatoes, and it was more like her version. The next time I made it, I peeled the eggplant…. even more like hers and also delightful. More onion…less onion…..still wonderful. Extra balsamic vinegar…..scrumptuous! I couldn’t mess this up! No matter how I changed up the ingredients, this caponata was good enough to eat as soup! I could have called her to ask specific amounts, but why? There’s nothing you can do to these fabulous ingredients, that won’t produce a flavorful, mouth-watering caponata! Marianna knows that, and so do I! Our grandmothers and mothers never relied on a cookbook. They relied on their taste buds and the aroma.
So I’m going to challenge you to experiment a bit with this recipe. I’ll give you the recipe that comes the closest to Marianna’s, and will suggest some of the inadvertent changes that I made as well. I’ll give you the amounts that I finally decided came the closest to Marianna’s. But I hope you’ll let your imagination run a little wild. I know that Marianna would want you to do so, and so would I. We were raised to cook the Italian way. Maybe the first time you make it, you’ll want to follow our “suggestions,” but the next time (and believe me there will be a next time…it’s sooo good!) why not try doing something differently. I guarantee you that you’ll not be disappointed!
2 lbs eggplant or 4 cups, cubed ( you can peel the eggplant or not)
2 red bell peppers, diced
1 small onion, diced, about 2/3 cup
1 28 ounce can of Italian crushed plum tomatoes
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
4 TBSP olive oil….you will probably need to add more if you peel the eggplant
salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the oil in a pan. Saute the onion and bell pepper until cooked, about 6-8 minutes.
- Remove the onions and pepper and add the eggplant to the pan, adding more oil if needed. Saute until softened, about 10 to 12 minutes.
- Add the onion/pepper mixture back to the pan. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the balsamic vinegar and serve, unless you’re like me and attack the pan with a spoon first.
- It’s wonderful served with Italian bread or crostini.