Trip to Italy provides a new take on Hanukkah latkes

BY MARGI LENGA KAHN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

I’m a big believer in culinary tradition. Gefilte fish on Passover, chicken soup on Friday nights, tzimmes on Rosh Hashanah, cholent for Shabbat lunch, and yes, latkes on Hanukkah. However, when you’re writing a holiday column the same old traditions don’t give you much to talk about. Two years ago in this column I suggested using other vegetables in combination with potatoes to “spice up” the traditional latke.

This year, after my culinary adventure in Rome (more on that below), I have a new suggestion for your Hanukkah latkes: Eggplant Caponata.

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One evening in Rome after exploring the Jewish ghetto earlier that day, my husband Mike and I wound our way through dark alleys and deserted back streets near the Pantheon to our destination: Ristorante Trattoria, a “nouveau” Sicilian restaurant that came highly recommended by travel guides and food writers. “Nouveau” because the menu announces that all the food is prepared without butter, garlic, or onions. Talk about an unsettling statement. Italian food without garlic and onions?

Mike and I would like to believe we’re adventurous eaters. We generally order foods that we’ve never tasted before or that I haven’t cooked at home. Our meal at Trattoria began with a mild, lovely spiced barley pilaf followed by aubergine involtini, which are tender strips of eggplant rolled around scarmoza (a smoky mozzarella-type cheese) surrounded by a pumpkin-pecan puree. The petite rolls melted in our mouths and the pumpkin puree reminded me that this member of the squash family, with its smooth and naturally sweet flesh, should not be limited to pie filling.

My entr ée was Pasta ala Norma, penne pasta served in a stew of fresh tomatoes, eggplant, fresh basil, and crushed red pepper and tossed with mild ricotta salata, which is a dry, salted sheep’s milk cheese quite unlike ricotta cheese. I had heard that Trattoria’s version of this dish was superb, and it was.

Mike opted for stuffed fresh sardines that came grilled and stuffed with a parsley pesto-like filling and drizzled with a rich extra-virgin olive oil. The dish was well seasoned and the sardines tasted almost sweet. Along with a bottle of wine and a basket of rolls that were crisp and airy, we were full.

Our waiter, Manuele, insisted we must have dessert. He returned with a gift from the chef, a melt-in-your-mouth cr ème brul ée whose rich green tea custard and crispy sugary top made us wish there was more. Noticing how we relished every spoon of the cr ème brul ée, our waiter asked if we’d sample a platter of sweets, compliments of the house. “But of course,” we replied.

There were macaroons, chocolate-hazelnut truffles, miniature butter cookies with candied orange peel, and almond lace cookies.

As we continued eating, the waiter told us that Trattoria is Scarlett Johansson’s favorite Italian restaurant and that John Travolta has Trattoria’s caponata flown to his home in the U.S. once a month. We told him we were big fans of caponata.

“Wait,” he exclaimed, “you haven’t tasted our caponata. When do you leave Rome?”

We explained that we were taking a mid-morning train to Cinque Terre.

“Perfect,” he said, and disappeared. He returned five minutes later with a large covered foil pan filled to the brim with Trattoria’s special house caponata. “It will be perfect for your lunch on the train.”

We thanked Manuele for his gracious service and generosity. As we left the restaurant the chefs waved to us, pointing to our box and nodding their heads. Lunch on the train the next day was divine. Trattoria’s eggplant caponata rivaled any we had tasted and certainly any that I had made. (Check out their Web site below.)

For those who have never tried it, caponata is one of the national dishes of Sicily and is similar to ratatouille. A type of relish or ragout, caponata’s primary ingredient is eggplant. The eggplant, along with an assortment of other vegetables such as tomatoes, roasted red peppers, celery, garlic, and onions, are individually saut éed and then combined and simmered on the stove or in the oven so that their flavors can blend. The stew may be seasoned with some of the following: fresh herbs (such as basil, oregano, marjoram, and thyme), capers, vinegar, sugar, and chocolate. Other additions might include pine nuts or almonds, raisins, capers, cooked artichokes, and anchovies.

The Italians serve their caponata as a topping or spread on fresh or toasted bread. It can also be used as an accompaniment to fish or lamb, as a sauce for pasta, or as a fabulous topping for polenta.

Which brings me to Hanukkah. What’s good atop Italian bread or polenta is even better atop potato latkes. The combination of crispy fried potatoes and a piquant vegetable stew is nothing short of a gastronomic miracle.

There’s no “correct” caponata. One of my favorite local versions can be found on the Hill at Adriana’s on Shaw Ave. Adriana’s caponata reached local rock star status after an article appeared in the Riverfront Times back on September 24, 2003, which stated:

“In St. Louis there are basically two places you can go to find caponata, the Italian eggplant-spread appetizer: in a can and boring at a specialty grocer, or fresh and decadent at Adriana’s. Co-owner Diana Guimbarda’s secret is the marinating process. Guimbarda combines fried eggplant, jumbo capers, green olives, tomatoes, onions, celery, vinegar, sugar and olive oil into a rich caponata, then refrigerates it for 24 hours”.

However, that’s only partially true. I’m here to tell you that there is a third place you can go to find caponata, and a delicious one at that: your own kitchen. You can make great caponata at home. Season it just the way you want to and use only the ingredients you like. Furthermore, you can make a big batch that will only get better as it ages in your refrigerator for up to one week.

So try caponata as a topping for your Hanukkah latkes. And after Hanukkah, try it alone or in combination with other foods. Please use my recipe only as a guide, making adjustments to suit your tastes. Just be sure to use the eggplant.

Happy Hanukkah.

Margi’s Eggplant Caponata

2-2 1/2 pounds eggplant, ends cut off, partially peeled lengthwise in stripes, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes

4-5 tbsp. olive oil, divided

1 tsp. coarse kosher salt plus more to taste

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes with sauce

2 tbsp. capers, rinsed in water and drained

3 tbsp. pine nuts

1/4 cup chopped green olives (without pimentos)

2 tsp. sugar

1 tbsp. red wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh chopped basil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray or lightly oil a baking sheet.

Toss eggplant cubes in a large bowl with 2 tbsp. olive oil and 1 tsp. coarse kosher salt. Spread eggplant on prepared baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

While eggplant bakes, heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in an ovenproof pot. Add onion, celery, and garlic and saut é until vegetables are soft, 5-10 minutes.

Remove eggplant from oven and turn oven temperature down to 350 degrees.

Add eggplant to saut éed vegetables along with canned diced tomatoes, capers, pine nuts, green olives, sugar, and vinegar. Heat mixture over medium heat for 1 minute.

Gently stir in basil and place pot in oven, uncovered, for 40 minutes, stirring after 20 minutes.

Taste for seasoning, adding salt, pepper and additional vinegar, as desired.

Allow caponata to cool to room temperature before serving. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container or zip-lock bag for up to one week.

Makes enough caponata to feed an army!

Trattoria

00186 Roma

Voa del Pozzo delle Cornacchie, 25

www. Ristorantetrattoria.it

Adriana’s

5101 Shaw Ave

St Louis, MO 63110

(314) 773-3833

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of one. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]