Did you know that the eggplant is actually a fruit and not a vegetable? Did you know that eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, which also includes tobacco, and that it contains very small amounts of nicotine (don't panic--there's not enough present to have any negative effects on the body)? Did you know that, according to a 5th century Chinese scroll, fashionable Chinese women used to make a dye out of eggplant and polish their teeth with it until they were a shiny gray? If you said yes to all of these questions.....then you're probably lying, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. You might want to find something more productive to do with your time however, because nobody should know that much about eggplant.
Rich in both folic acid and potassium, eggplant, also called aubergine in some contries, is the main ingredient in Sicilian caponata, a relish dish that is traditionally made from chopped fried vegetables. Variations of caponata are found throughout the Mediterranean region, and it can be interpreted to fit individual tastes. Because I seldom fry anything in my kitchen (although I do have a goal of creating the perfect fried chicken this summer), I opted to prepare a version composed of grilled vegetables that have been brushed with heart-healthy olive oil. This method gives this dish a nice smoky undertone with the flavors of the vegetables taking center stage. Capers and olives add saltiness and the balsamic vinegar adds some tang. Paired with toasted baguette slices, this is the perfect light and healthy entertaining hors d'oeuvre. Here a just a few more tips for this Mediterranean mezze:
- If you don't have a grill or a grill pan at your disposal, then simply chop the vegetables into 1/2-inch pieces, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large roasting pan, and roast at 400F degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until tender, tossing occasionally.
- Pitted nicoise olives can be substituted for the kalamata olives.
- The caponata will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 2-3 days.
- The caponata can also be used as a topping for grilled chicken or mild-flavored fish, served alongside pita chips, folded into omelets, or eaten on its own.
Grilled Eggplant Caponata
2 sweet onions, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices
2 large eggplants, cut into 1/2-inch strips
2 large zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch strips
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
Salt and pepper to taste
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 1/2 cups canned diced tomatoes
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons capers
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
20 fresh basil leaves, julienned
1 whole grain baguette
Preheat a gas grill or grill pan oven medium heat. Brush the onion, eggplant, and zucchini slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill, in batches if necessary, until tender, 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer to a platter to cool and coarsely chop.
In a deep large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, olives, vinegar, capers, and crushed red pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes.
Add the zucchini, eggplant, and onion to the tomato mixture and simmer until slightly thickened, 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the basil, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Slice the baguette at 1/2-inch intervals, brush with olive oil, and grill for a few minutes, until warmed through and browned. Serve alongside the caponata.