I love making starters, particularly fussy little pastry contrivances. But Christmas dinner can be an all-out onslaught on the digestion, so something lighter seemed necessary. After an hour or so spent building a fort out of recipe books and looking for something that fit the bill, I failed completely and settled upon caponata. It’s vegetarian, certainly. But it is not light.
Caponata is a rich stew of aubergines and tomatoes, with handfuls of capers and olives. It’s what you’d get to if you spent months trying to re-engineer tapenade into a casserole. It has a sweet and sour edge, and looks lovely – like a rougher aubergine caviar, and just as richly savoury.
So obviously I put goats’ cheese on it. Obviously.
Making it fussier
Caponata serves beautifully as a dip, as part of a meze/antipasti selection, and with some starch – or just some other veg – it’ll make a main course. I was initially going to do a set of meze dishes and make some fresh flatbreads to start. But then I looked at the rest of the cooking schedule and rapidly came to my senses. Little individual portions with some kind of bread seemed like the way forward, but that just didn’t push enough of my “festive fancy bullshit” buttons. So I considered:
- Turning it into individual spanakopita-style filo pastry pies, possibly with spinach
- Bruschetta topping
- Re-working the core idea as a terrine
- Just melting a load of cheese on it
By now, it’s probably easy to predict which option won out. A toasted goats’ cheese crouton on top enhanced the presentation, provided a little bready substance, and the goats’ cheese cuts through the residual sweetness of the caponata a little.
The mini pie idea has legs though, so I’ll be trying that.
This is more or less the caponata from The River Cottage Veg Everyday book. In fact, that’s what I started making, and just went off piste slightly at the end.
- 2 aubergines
- An onion
- 2 sticks of celery
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 5 large tomatoes
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- Brown sugar
- 50g sultanas
- 2 tbsp rinsed capers
- 50g pitted green olives
- White wine
- A little optional red chilli
- Flat leaf parsley
- Bread and goats’ cheese for the croutons
First chop all the things. Dice the aubergine fairly fine. Chop the onion, celery, chilli and garlic – again, quite fine. Slice the olives, and peel, de-seed, and chop the tomatoes.
Fry the onions, garlic, chilli, and celery quite low until soft and starting to brown, then add the chopped tomatoes. Let it all simmer together and the liquid reduce somewhat, then add the vinegar, capers, olives, sultanas, and about a glass of white wine. Let it simmer for a few minutes, on low. The original recipe includes a tablespoon of brown sugar at this point, but I just added a little as needed to tweak balance.
Separately, fry the aubergine cubes hot, until richly brown. Add them to the sauce, and let the whole thing simmer together.
The original recipe has this as quite a quick cook, with only 10 or so minutes to finish, and no wine. I prefer something a bit more cooked-down and amalgamated. So in this case, I’d let it simmer and reduce slowly for perhaps 30 minutes, maybe even longer.
Once it’s done, you can leave it indefinitely, and just reheat as needed. I made mine the day before, and it was notably better by then.
It’s probably not surprising from the ingredients, but this is rich. The balsamic, capers, and olives are big, big flavours, and there’s plenty of sweetness in the mix too. The vinegar gives some, as do the sultanas, so I’m fairly sure a whole tablespoon of brown sugar would have been overmuch.
The River Cottage recipe serves four. I got three generous starters and two substantial lunches of leftovers out of it, so that’s probably about right. For the second day, I pureed it and tossed it over gnocchi with a little leftover broccoli. It worked, though was perhaps a little sweet.