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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Experience, which plays such an important part in culinary work, is nowhere so necessary as in the preparation of sauce for not only must the latter flatter the palate, but they must also vary in savor, consistency and viscosity, in accordance with the dishes they accompany.
~Auguste Escoffier

It is about time to hop on the Julie & Julia bandwagon. Whatever your take on Julie Powell or your perspective on the film, it is a staunch reminder that Julia Child should be accorded the respect and homage she deserves as a revered grande dame of home cuisine. She profoundly changed the fabric of the American kitchen and introduced us to the utter grace and simplicity of French cooking. It seems only fitting to offer a post on sauces mères which includes two of her most adored, Hollandaise and Bernaise.

(One of life’s small, but nagging, regrets: one Monday several years ago, I was reading the Santa Barbara News Press and learned that the day before Julia and Jacques Pépin attended a gathering at the art museum which was appeared to be open to the public. I was staying just down the street, and somehow the event had eluded my radar. Damn.)

A mother sauce or sauce grande serves as a base sauce to use in making other variations on the original theme. There are five classic sauces mères from which all other major sauces derive:

Espagnole or Brown sauce (demi-glace) is brown stock-based, and includes sauces such as Bordelaise, Chasseur, Chateaubriand.

Velouté sauce is based on white stock and roux, and includes sauces such as Allemande, Ravigote, Suprème, and White Bordelaise.

Béchamel sauce is made with milk and pale roux, and includes sauces such as Crème, Mornay and Soubise.

Tomat or red sauce is tomato based, and includes sauces such as Marinara.

Hollandaise sauce is emulsified, and includes sauces such as Mayonnaise and Bearnaise.

Sauce is a French term which descends from the Latin word salsus, meaning “salted.” In ancient Rome, sauces were used to disguise flavors—possibly to conceal doubtful freshness. A defining characteristic of classic cuisine, French sauces date back to the Middle Ages.

Originally four in number, the basic mother sauces were initially classified in the 19th century by the father of French “grande cuisine,” Antonin Carême: Sauce Tomat, Béchamel, Velouté, and Espagnole. Then in the 20th century, master chef Auguste Escoffier added the fifth and final mother sauce, Hollandaise, with its derivatives covering almost all forms of classical emulsion sauces including Mayonnaise (see Mayonaisse, 03.03.09).

Warmed egg yolks with the tang of lemon juice whisked with butter to make a thick, yellow cream. The classic sauce that dresses eggs Benedict, tangy and velvety Hollandaise is equally delectable spooned over asparagus, brussels sprouts, green beans, potatoes, poultry or even with sandwiches. Bearnaise, with its characteristic piquant flavors of wine vinegar and tarragon, pairs well with steak, flatfish, shellfish, artichokes, and poached eggs too.

HOLLANDAISE SAUCE

10 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces, melted and clarified

3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 T fresh lemon juice
Pinch of sea salt
2 T unsalted butter, chilled, divided equally and cut into small pieces

Sea salt and white pepper

Clarify the butter. Place butter pieces into a saucepan over moderate heat. When the butter has melted, skim off the foam and strain the clear yellowish liquid into a bowl, leaving the milky residue in the bottom of the pan. (The residue can be used for soups or sauces later.)

In a heavy saucepan, vigorously whisk egg yolks for a minute or so until they are slightly thickened and pale yellow. Beat the lemon juice and salt into the eggs and then add 1 tablespoon of the chilled butter and pinch of salt.

Place the pan over low heat or simmering water and whisk further until the egg mixture becomes smooth, creamy, and even thicker. This should take 1-2 minutes and you should see the bottom of the pan between strokes. Promptly remove from heat and beat in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter which should cause the eggs to cease cooking.

Slowly dribble in the melted butter, rapidly beating in each addition before you add the next. Make sure you scrape the mixture from the sides and bottom of the pan. When the sauce is as thick as heavy cream, you may beat in the butter in larger driblets. It takes about 5 minutes to create the final emulsion.

Serve at once or keep the sauce warm by setting it over a pan of lukewarm water. Take care, because if kept too warm, the sauce will turn—the egg yolks will begin to curdle and the butter will separate.

Pourboire: Should the sauce turn or fail to thicken, spoon out a tablespoon or so into a mixing bowl. Whisk with a tablespoon of lemon juice until it thickens, then gradually whisk in small spoonfuls of sauce, allowing the mixture to cream and thicken before adding the next.

BEARNAISE SAUCE

1/4 C white wine vinegar
1/4 C dry white wine
1 T minced shallots
1 t dried tarragon
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 large egg yolks
8-10 T unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon

In a small saucepan combine wine vinegar, wine, shallots, and dried tarragon and simmer over moderate heat until reduced to 2 tablespoons. Cool and strain through a fine sieve.

In an ovenproof bowl whisk the egg yolks until they become thick and sticky. Whisk in the reduced vinegar mixture, salt and pepper. Place the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Whisk until mixture is warm, about 2 minutes. The yolk mixture should be thickened enough so you can see the bottom of the pan between strokes.

While whisking the yolk mixture gradually pour in the melted butter, a tablespoon or so at a time whisking thoroughly to incorporate before adding more butter. As the mixture begins to thicken and become creamy, the butter can be added more rapidly.

Season to taste with chopped tarragon, salt and pepper. To keep the sauce warm, set the bowl over lukewarm water.

A world devoid of tomato soup, tomato sauce, tomato ketchup and tomato paste is hard to visualize.
~Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

On President’s Day—watching pre-dawn documentaries detailing their lives—I was again struck that we have yet to elect a head of state with Italian heritage. Curious. It seemed a proper day to post a tomato sauce recipe.

This sauce is fundamental, versatile and ever so simple to create. It is great to have on hand for kith and kin at a moment’s notice any time of the day. Although the fresh tomatoes in my clime are fabulous, the season is unfortunately narrow (usually mid July through early October, with the most flavorful in September). Fresh tomatoes out of season just do not make the grade…they can even be on the verge of inedible. So, I usually turn to the canned whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes that perpetually inhabit the pantry. Luckily, some of the tomato vendors at the local farmers’ market also can their own, and they are exquisitely flavorful.

If the season is on, you may substitute 2-3 lbs of fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped. But, then again, why would you not slice a gorgeous heirloom tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil…or even just a little sea salt…and savor?

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Two 28 oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes, finely chopped (retain juice)
1/2 medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded
1 small rind of parmigiano reggiano
A quick splash of red wine
Sea salt
Bouquet garni* of fresh parsley, thyme and basil sprigs

Using kitchen scissors, chop tomatoes while still in can.

Heat olive oil in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring some, until softened and slightly goldern, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic, saute and stir occasionally another 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Stir in the tomatoes with juice, carrot, salt, rind, red wine splash and bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. The sauce will thicken to a porridge consistency. Remove and discard the rind and herb bundle. Adjust seasoning to your liking with salt remembering that tomatoes demand liberal amounts of salt.

A silkier version can be made by finishing the sauce in a food mill or blender.

The sauce will keep refrigerated for one week or frozen for 3 months.

*Bouquet garni: herb sprigs bundled together with kitchen twine.

Pourboire: when serving with a pasta or fish, it can be gently toned down with a little cream to make a “pink” sauce. The sauce can also be jazzed up with drained capers, chopped olives, diced peppers, red pepper flakes…you name it.