Friday, 8 January 2010


I've never really got the hang of aubergines.  Cooking them at home as always ended up being infuriating rather satisfying, I think one of the reasons is that the bulbous purple beasties don't really taste of a whole lot on their own.  They're pleasant enough but one of those things that only suddenly come alive and start singing once they're shacked up happily with oils, spices, cheeses, herbs, tomatoes, lamb, almost anything now I come to think of it but they need something.  Even the simple-looking aubergine salads going round on the Japanese kaiten restaurant conveyor belts have a platoon of oils, spices and vinegars strong-arming the aubergine into making something tasty.  This recipe is the exception that proves the rule of my inability to deal with aubergines in my kitchen, there's quite a lot going on and what I like so much about it is the balance between the extremely salty, sour, sweet and bitter ingredients, with the aubergine sitting happily in the middle pulling it all together, shamelessly taking the glory off the back of everyone else's hard work.

Caponata is an Italian dish, usually translated as an aubergine salad.  The variations are legion however, including everything up to octopus, herring, tuna, anchovies and even beef not to mention most other vegetables under the (Mediterranean) sun getting chucked in by one recipe or another.  What they all have in common though is the classic aubergine/tomato pairing cooked in a sauce balancing the sweet and sour, salty and bitter.  This recipe doesn't have any unnecessary extras, just the essentials and it cooks down into quite a dense, intense, rich dish that is delicious served straight away or left to cool down to room temperature.  What's really great about it is that you can store jars of it in the fridge for ages where it transforms into a kind of chutney which goes well with practically anything and is a nice accompaniment to liven up a mid-week dinner.


2 medium sized aubergines or 1 large one
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons capers
good handful of black olives, pitted and halved
1 big juicy garlic clove or a couple of ordinary ones
1 onion
1 tin chopped tomatoes (or about 5 real ones)
a few chopped basil leaves

Heat the oven to 180.  Chop the aubergines - some recipes say to peel them, but I don't bother.  I can see why, some people think the skin is a bit too tannic but I like it and I think it makes the dish look more, erm, auberginey.  Slice them lengthways then again into quarters or sixths if it's a big one, then slice them across into pieces about 1cm thick.  Fry these until they've taken on some colour then cook for a further 5 mins with the onion and the crushed garlic, you want to halve the onion and slice it into thin disks to give the final dish a bit more texture.

Frying aubergines is always a bit of a sod since the things soak up any oil immediately, so putting the oil in the pan first never really works unless you're frying them about 5 pieces at a time - the road to insanity - and also one of the reasons it's common to get oily, greasy aubergine dishes served up since it's so tempting to keep adding some more oil when the previous lot just disappears in front of your eyes.  I first put them in a bowl and give them a quick mix by hand with some oil in an attempt to try and get it vaguely evenly distributed, an alternative is brushing each piece but frankly I'm buggered if I can be bothered with that.

As the aubergine pieces cook their spongy absorbent structure slowly starts to collapse, the pieces shrink a bit and change colour and the oil starts to ooze back out (which is why you don't want to keep adding it as it disappears at the start), the sizzling noise changes and you can suddenly smell aubergine, similar to cooking mushrooms once you've fried the water out of them and they start to cook properly in the pan.  This is very satisfying (I'm quite easily pleased) but some people would rather stop before that stage, mixing in the onion and garlic to cook whilst the aubergine pieces are just a bit coloured but before they've started really cooking down.  This is fine, you're left with a dish that's not quite so dense, but they'll cook fine, it's just personal preference, I'm more a fan of giving them a proper cooking at this stage and a slightly more gooey final product.

So anyway, once you've got all that out of the way add everything else, pour another half-a-tomato-tin's worth of water in, season with salt and pepper and put in the oven for about 35-45 minutes, taking it out halfway through for a stir and to make sure it's not sticking, add a bit more water if it is.  The photo above is what it looks like after it's done, I've thoughtfully scraped some away from the side of the pan so you can see how thick it is.  Some more chopped basil leaves and pine nuts are nice additions to serve, or possibly some smoked anchovies.

and be sure to make enough to put in the fridge for a few days.

Aubergine flower photo courtesy of matsuyuki

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