When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, there were forty thousand Jews on the island of Sicily, a Spanish territory at the time. The Jews left the island with the culinary traditions of their ancestors steeped in Moorish customs. The people of northern Italy were not accustomed to eggplant. They were fearful of this fruit, which they thought had the power to make you go mad, and they also viewed eggplant as "Jew food." As a result, any old eggplant dish from Italy had its roots in a Jewish kitchen.
One of the most popular Italian eggplant dishes is caponata, an eggplant relish so ubiquitous that it can be found in cans on our own supermarket shelves. Caponata is actually a Jewish Sabbath dish. The vinegar and sugar preserve the mixture so that it can be made in advance of Shabbat and served at room temperature for the s'udah sh'lishit meal Saturday afternoon.
- Wash the eggplants, cut off the ends, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
- Heat a 4-quart pot for 20 seconds. Add the oil and heat for another 10 seconds. Add the eggplant cubes and fry in the oil until the cubes are soft and particles on the bottom of the pan are golden. The eggplant will absorb the oil at first and then the oil will be released. Remove the eggplant cubes with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl. Leave the remaining oil in the pot.
- Add the onions to the pot and fry until slightly golden and soft.
- Return the eggplant to the pot, and add the remaining ingredients. Cook for 20 minutes over low heat, until the flavors are well blended. Stir occasionally.
- Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. The caponata lasts for weeks in the refrigerator and always tastes better the longer it sits.
- Eggplant soaks up a lot of oil but will release it once it starts to cook. The best way to prevent excess absorption is to make sure the oil is very hot but not smoking.
- Do not cut eggplant too small or it will disintegrate. However, if you cut eggplant too thick for this recipe or for recipes that call for whole slices, the eggplant won't cook evenly and you will get undercooked eggplant that is spongy and tasteless.
- After the caponata is made and refrigerated, excess oil can be blotted off the top by using a paper towel.
- As long as a thin film of oil is covering the top of the food, this dish will last weeks or longer in the refrigerator. Oil keeps out the air that would allow bacteria to grow.