Smooth skins hued from deep purple to violet white, and bodies styled from pleasingly plump to gracefully slender, eggplants always bare tender, creamy flesh inside.

Though commonly thought of as a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit, and specifically a berry. Eggplants belong to the Solanaceae plant family, commonly known as nightshades, and are kinsfolk with tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes. Eggplants have nothing to do with eggs other than their oblong shape which spurred their ovular name. Other cultures favored the term aubergine which is derived from the Sanskrit meaning “to cure wind disorder,” since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence. The Sanskrit word vatinganah was somehow morphed to badingan by the Persians, then al-badinjan by the Arabs, alberengena by the Spanish, and finally aubergine by the French.

Native to India in wild form, eggplants were later cultivated in China around 500 B.C. The fruit was then introduced to the Mediterranean basin and Africa. Italy’s ardent affair with eggplant began in the 14th century. Myths persisted that eating eggplant caused insanity, not to mention leprosy and bad breath, which explains why eggplant was often used solely for decoration in many homes. Thankfully, so far I have at least avoided leprosy.

The Sicilian antipasto relish known as caponata is a poster child for food’s mottled history. An alluring triangular island smack dab in the middle of Meditteranean trade routes, Sicily has been conquered over centuries by the likes of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Germans, French, and Spaniards. Through all this rape, pillage and survival, Sicilians subtly borrowed along the way to engender a cradle of singular cuisine. But, it comes as no surprise that the origins of caponata are disputed.

Some say caponata is of Spanish descent, derived from the Catalan word caponada, a similar relish. Others emphasize that the root word, capón, a type of fish, suggest it was prepared with fish as in capón de galera which is a form of gazpacho served shipboard. Another school claims that the dish had to be a mariner’s breakfast because of the vinegar, which may have acted as a preservative. A final, yet less accepted, theory is that the word derives from the Latin word caupo (tavern) where cauponae was served—a form of gastropub for ancient travelers.

Caponata is protean, having as many versions as uses. Antipasto, contorno, bruschetta, pasta, frittata, paninis, with fish, atop grilled meats, etc.

CAPONATA ALLA SICILIANA

Extra virgin olive oil
3 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 T red chile pepper flakes

2-3 ripe medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 T capers, drained, rinsed and dried
1/3 C green olives, such as cerignola, pitted and chopped
2 T pine nuts
2 T currants
2 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T balsamic vinegar
1 T sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t premier unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T tomato paste

Fresh mint, stemmed and chopped
Red chile pepper flakes

In a heavy pot or large sauce pan, pour in olive oil until about 2 1/2″ deep. Heat over medium high heat and bring the temperature to about 300 F. You can drop small pieces of eggplant or bread in the oil and when it starts bubbling vigorously, it is ready. Add the eggplant and cook, until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked eggplant to paper towels and drain.

Meanwhile, in a deep, sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil to medium high, add the onions, garlic and pepper flakes and sauté until onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, capers, olives, pine nuts, currants and thyme. Stir some and cook until the tomatoes release their juices, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together balsamic vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and tomato paste, add to pan, and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add the cooked eggplant, and continue to cook at a simmer until heated, about 2 more minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with mint and a pinch of chile flakes.

Pourboire:  consider dribbling caponata on bruschetta slices.

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…dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.
~Art Buchwald

This Provençal comfort food exudes the melodious aromas of poultry, olives, fennel and capers that so often waft from the region’s kitchens and tables.

Capers (Capparis spinosa L.) are perennial bushy shrubs that bear fragrant white to light pink petals, and fleshy leaves renowned for the delicious immature buds which are commonly prepared pickled in salt and vinegar. Native to the Meditteranean basin, the thorny caper bush is well adapted to the sun soaked, sandy and sometimes nutrient needy soil found in the region.

Intense manual labor is required to gather capers, for the buds must be picked each morning just as they reach the proper size—before they open. Merchants categorize capers by size with the smallest non pareil often being the most desirable. However, somewhat larger buds from Pantelleria, a hot dry wind-swept speck of a volcanic island south of Sicily, are also highly prized.

Freshly picked caper buds are not an especially savory lot, but their piquancy increases after sun-drying, salting and brining. Deceptive by size, these charming, petite morsels are tart, zestful and bring earthy, tangy, citrus dimensions to dishes. A pantry without capers should sense remorse. Capers are packed in glass jars in coarse salt or vinegar brine, and so it is incumbent to thoroughly rinse before use.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH WINE, CAPERS, OLIVES, FENNEL, & SHERRY VINEGAR

1 (3 1/2 to 4 lb) chicken, rinsed, patted dry, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Herbes de Provence
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 dried bay leaf
2 rosemary sprigs
1 C high quality green olives, pitted (such as picholine)
1 C capers, drained and well rinsed
4 fennel branches, roughly sliced into 2″-3″ pieces
2 C dry white wine
1 C chicken stock

1/4 C sherry wine vinegar

3 T fresh tarragon or flat parsley, roughly chopped

Season the chicken liberally with salt, pepper and a couple of pinches of herbes de Provence crumbled between finger and thumb. In a large heavy deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter and garlic over medium heat. But, do not allow to brown. With a wooden spatula, massage the garlic cloves into the entire pan surface. Then, place chicken in pan, skin side down; the skin should sizzle some when the pieces contact the surface. Brown chicken in batches, turning over once, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Remove crushed garlic cloves before they brown. Set aside browned chicken on a dish or platter, loosely tented.

Reduce the heat to medium or medium low, and add the onions. Sweat onions until soft and translucent, but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute more. Return the chicken to the pan, and add the bay leaf, rosemary, olives, capers, fennel, wine and stock. Cover and simmer slowly until chicken is tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Remove the chicken to the dish or platter, and tent loosely with foil. Also remove bay leaf, rosemary sprigs. Raise heat, fortify sauce with sherry vinegar and boil down rapidly until sauce begins to just lightly thicken and coat a spoon. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking.

Serve over rice, pasta or thick noodles.

Marsala is a fortified wine produced in the region surrounding the its namesake city on the coast of Sicily. The wine is made using a process called in perpetuum, which is similar to the solera system used to produce Spanish sherry. In this continual technique, wine is drawn for bottling from sets of barrels which have been topped off with wine from the next set in the rack. Each barrel is subsequently fininshed with wine from the next set of barrels along the solera. When the last set of barrels is reached, new wine that is just entering the solera is added. So, years into the life of a solera, a complex and mature sherry results which combines the best of both worlds—the mature depth and strata from the older wines with the fresh crispness from the youthful ones. Not unlike most generational processes.

There are a number of varieties of Marsala wines which are classified in accordance with their age. This ranges from Fine, which is aged for less than one year, to varieties like Vergine e/o Soleras Stravecchio e Vergine e/o Soleras Riserva that are aged for at least 10 years.

Marsala is a seaport located in the Trapani province which features a low coastline, and is situated is the westernmost point of the island. Formerly called Lilybaeum, Marsala was the principal stronghold of the Carthaginians in Sicily, and was founded in 396 BC by the survivors of the nearby Phonecian island of Motya, whose city had been destroyed by the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse.

The Saracens, who ruled Sicily during the tenth century, gave Marsala its current moniker which is derived from the Arab Marsa Allah “port of Allah” or perhaps Marsa Ali “port of Ali” as the ancient harbor of Lylibaeum was immense.

The English trader John Woodhouse is often attributed with introducing local Marsala wine to an even wider audience. In 1773, Woodhouse landed at the port of Marsala and sampled this regional fortified wine, which was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines which were then the rage in England. He risked dispatching a considerable consignment of wine to England to sound out the market. Given the positive response, the merchant set up his own company in Marsala.

A more cost conscious but equally delectable version of this recipe can be made by substituting boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

SCALOPINI AL MARSALA (VEAL MARSALA)

2 C chicken broth
3 T finely chopped shallot
6 T unsalted butter
12 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
2 t fresh sage, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 C all purpose flour
6 veal cutlets
1/2 T dried sage
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C dry Marsala wine

1 C heavy cream
2 T fresh lemon juice

Fresh sage, chopped
1/4 C capers, drained (optional)

Bring broth to a boil in a 2 quart saucepan over high heat, then boil, uncovered, until reduced to about 1 cup, about 20 minutes.

Cook shallots in 3 tablespoons butter in a heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until shallot begins to turn golden, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms, 2 teaspoon sage, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated and mushrooms begin to brown. Set aside, tented.

Pound veal until thin but not torn, season with dried sage, salt and pepper; then dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Sauté veal in 3 tablespoons butter and olive oil until browned but not entirely done, then set aside. Do not overcook as you will return the veal to the pan later.

To deglaze, add Marsala to skillet and boil over high heat, stirring and scraping up brown bits, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add reduced broth, mushrooms, and cream, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened. Return veal to pan and complete the thickening process. Add lemon juice and a couple more tablespoons Marsala. Serve with chopped fresh sage sprinkled over the veal. The capers are just a reflection of my addiction to these pungent little berries.

Serve with linguine or toasted orzo (see Toasted Orzo post).