Summer is probably my favorite season for fresh produce — but really, if you ask me in the fall or the spring what my favorite seasons are, you’ll probably get a different answer. Despite that, there’s one jewel of summer that makes me especially prize its produce, and it’s a gem that eclipses and asparaguses and strawberries of spring and the delightful hard squashes and greens of fall. If you know me at all you know that I am absolutely bananas about summer tomatoes. I wait all year for them and when they show up at the farmers’ market I go absolutely crazy buying them (alas, I haven’t mastered tomato-growing yet, and we moved across the country this summer, so I didn’t even get to try this year). This year has been trying for my tomato mania, as the pregnancy has caused incredibly awful heartburn since the beginning of the second trimester, and tomatoes are a major trigger for me. I’m stubborn though, and as my tomato lust has continued unabated, I haven’t tried to hold back from slaking it.
One of the things about Ohio that’s made me really happy is that heirloom tomatoes do really well here, unlike Arizona, where it’s just too damn hot and the pollen literally burns up in the flowers. I wasted no time finding an amazing farm that’s less than six miles from my house that produces all of my summer favorites, including a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes! Every week I go and stock up, buying several different varieties, for the week’s cooking and noshing.
It turns out that the farmer also grows everything else that I could possibly want for another favorite dish of mine: caponata. This is a dish that I liked pretty well the first time I had it, even though I was cooking it in the winter and the ingredients were so far from peak-of-flavor that it wasn’t even funny. Since I started making it in the proper season, I’ve completely jettisoned the original recipe I was using and re-worked it to play better with in-season ingredients. Of particular importance is getting the tomatoes to fully complement the eggplant: eggplant readily absorbs flavors, so if you salt the diced tomatoes and let them sit for a while, lots of juice will be drawn out of them and they’ll lend lots of tasty flavor to the eggplant. Who knew these two relatives could play so well together? So go, hurry: summer is waning, so grab the last of the summer produce and whip this dish up!
Savory Summer Caponata
A Jitterbean Original
Makes about 6 cups, give or take
Lots of people think they don’t like eggplant until they try this dish. If you’re dealing with a finicky eggplant-eater, just don’t tell them that it contains eggplant until they’ve already devoured a helping (or two) of it!
Use whatever tomatoes look and — more importantly — smell best to you. If this includes cherry tomatoes, that’s fine, but know that you’re going to get significantly less juice out of them and the character of your caponata, while still delicious, will be different. (The caponata pictured above used quite a few cherry tomatoes and so is less creamy or saucy than usual.)
I love to re-purpose leftovers. This dish gets a breakfast treatment by getting scrambled with eggs and served on toast — yum!
1 pound fresh tomatoes, cored
3 tablespoons olive-oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 pound pattypan squash, cut into approximately 1/2″ dice
1 medium onion, diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 anchovy fillets, minced into a paste (optional)
1 pound eggplant, any variety, cut into approximately 1/2″ dice
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3-4 tablespoons fresh basil and/or oregano, minced (or dried oregano and/or Italian spices, if fresh is unavailable)
Several ounces hard cheese (such as asiago or gouda), either grated or cut into small chunks (optional)
High-quality rustic bread, for serving
Chop the tomatoes in approximately 1/2″ dice. Place the tomatoes and all of the juices in a bowl. Salt the tomatoes well, stir, and let sit for at least half an hour but no more than one.
In a heavy-bottomed saute pan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmery. Add the squash and the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 7-10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and anchovies and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Pour the tomatoes, all of their exuded liquid, the eggplant, and the crushed red pepper into the saute pan. If using dried herbs, add them now too. Drizzle another tablespoon or two of olive oil over the cooking mixture. Stir well to combine and raise the heat slightly so that the liquid will come to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender, about 15 minutes (though this will depend on the size of your dice).
Stir in the fresh herbs and stir to combine. Finish with another drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately, passing the bread and cheese at the table.
Try adding roasted bell peppers to the dish at the same time you add the tomatoes and eggplant.
Experiment with other types of squash, though you’d do well to avoid super-watery zucchini. Try a calabaza or Mexican grey squash instead.
If squash blossoms are available, try adding them toward the end of cooking (I’ve never tried this myself, but it sounds delicious!)