Culinary Interlude: Caponata … err … ratatouille

I love food — Mediterranean-sourced food in particular (though I won’t turn down anything tasty no matter where it’s from). And one of life’s great mysteries is: Is ratatouille or caponata the better dish?

The answer of course is “yes.”

Actually, sometimes when I start cooking, I’m not sure whether I’m on my way to making caponata or ratatouille. Either the celery and sugar gets added, or it doesn’t. And maybe I reach for green olives and find calamatas instead. It’s OK — everybody wins either way. Since I tend to split the difference between caponata and ratatouille, a purist might take issue with my recipe, but I’m willing to bet they’re both descended from some dish ancient Romans served up way back when (the preparation of which no doubt involved heated arguments in Latin over the proper recipe), as translated through 2,000 years and shifting regional tastes.

Baked ratatouille topped with an egg and fresh basil. Nobody will know you've been repurposing the same batch of stewed veggies for days.

Here’s my take on caponata:

1 eggplant (diced into 1/2-inch cubes)
2 zucchini (diced into 1/2-inch cubes)
1 cup diced celery
1 onion (chopped)
2 cloves of garlic (minced)
1 large tomato (chopped)
1/2 cup sliced good-quality large green olives
1 tbs drained capers
1 tbs tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
healthy splash of red wine vinegar
Pinch of oregano, fresh or dried
salt and pepper to taste

Dice and salt the eggplant in a collander (more ritual at this point than anything — I haven’t had a bitter eggplant in years).

While the eggplant does its thing, saute the celery in 2 tbs of olive oil until it softens. Add the onion and garlic and saute that until it softens and gets a bit brown.

Empty the celery-onion-garlic mixture into a large bowl.

Add about a quarter-cup of olive oil to the pan and saute the eggplant and zucchini cubes.

Add the celery-onion-garlic mixture to the pan, along with the chopped tomato, capers, vinegar, sugar, tomat0 paste, oregano and olives.

Let the combined ingredients simmer for about 20 minutes — covered at first, and then uncovered for the last five minutes (use your judgment, based on the amount of liquid present, since you want this to thicken).

If you leave out the celery, vinegar  and sugar, add two chopped roasted red bell peppers, swap the green olives for calamatas or no olives and replace the oregano with basil or thyme, you have more of a ratatouille.

I like making big frigging batches of this stuff, because I get a lot of mileage out of it. I serve it as a side dish, on rice or on pasta. But one of my favorite presentations is to spoon the stuff into ramekins, crack an egg over the top, drizzle on a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and bake the ramekins until the eggs set. Top with fresh basil, add bread and salad and get ready to impress the assembled diners with your artful leftovers.

Oh yeah. And the best thing about caponata/ratatouille? My kid loves it. Especially with the egg over the top.

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