A Departure From Hummus: The Eggplant Caponata

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Being 1/4 Armenian myself, and 1/4-1/8 Greek (long story), I'm no stranger to the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern foods. In short, I love me some hummus. Always have, always will. But even I get sick of it sometimes and yearn for another creamy, heavily spiced dip. Enter the eggplant caponata.

I've made Mario Batali's version which is UH-MAYZING, using pine nuts and cocoa powder to form some of the spectacular flavorings. I tried Ina Garten's using marinated red peppers and capers to balance out the eggplant with something sweet and somthing salty. But if I do say so myself, my own eggplant caponata beats them both. Mine starts off with a slow pan-roasting of eggplant, then adds onions and both are cooked on low flame until very well caramelized. This gives such insanely good flavor and really makes the eggplant take a step forward ahead of the rest of the flavors in the dish. Other caponatas I've tried I feel the eggplant gets masked by tomato paste, capers, olives, or other intense flavors. Mine the eggplant stands out in all its sweet glory. It makes eggplant taste like what it should be.

I add ground walnuts for some body and texture, some jalapeno for heat, currants for sweetness, and cumin for earthy smoky spice. Everything is balanced out with some balsamic vinegar and garlic. But my secret ingredient would be mint. Fresh, cool and crisp mint that just makes the rest of the flavors pop right out and gives an unexpected although totally appropriate note to the rest of the dish. I puree the mixture in a food processor for a creamy texture, add some good quality imported extra virgin olive oil, and your dip is served. This dip can be made 2 days in advance, but it is best served up fresh. I like it slightly warmer than room temperature so if you make it in advance, heat it up in the microwave a couple of minutes before serving. Serve with pita chips or fresh pita bread triangles as an appetizer for your next Mediterranean inspired meal or as a great snack!

Eggplant Caponata
1 medium-sized eggplant
1 small white onion, chopped small
1/2 jalapeno (with seeds), roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp freshly grated orange zest
2 Tbsp ground walnuts
2 Tbsp dried currants
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil + more as needed
3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped

Cut the ends off of the eggplant and discard. Cut the eggplant in half down the length, then each half again down the length. Cut strips and then into cubes so you have 1/2 inch cubes. Heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the eggplant and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the oil and cook on medium heat. Add more olive oil if the eggplant soaks the 1/4 cup up. Cook 5 minutes, then add the onions and mix in. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook stirring occasionally until eggplant and onions are well caramelized, another 10 minutes. Add the jalapeno, garlic, orange zest, walnuts, and currants and cook another 2 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook about 3 minutes more, until the vinegar is absorbed into the mixture. Remove from heat and let stand to cool a couple of minutes.

Set up your food processor. Transfer the eggplant mixture into the food processor and pulse a couple of times. Add the cumin and mint, and taste then adjust with salt and pepper to taste. Pulse until mixture is pureed but still chunky in consistency (like above picture). Transfer mixture to a serving bol and garnish with fresh mint if desired. Serve with pita chips or pita bread.

Jalapeno will give this dip a little kick, so if you want it mild then use seeded jalapeno or omit it all together.

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