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Garden tomatoes, eggplant and onions are the basis for caponata, a great summertime vegetable dish.

Anna’s Italian Ristorante made the best caponata I’ve ever had. Anna’s was an old-fashioned red-checked-tablecloth Italian place on L.A.’s Westside; it was the kind of place where the owners knew all of their regulars’ names and the waiters were all professional waiters rather than aspiring actors and screenwriters (they also knew many secrets, and occasionally they told stories–naming no names, of course!). Tony and Andy decided to retire a couple of years ago, so they sold the property. Now it’s just another would-be trendy bar.
Tony promised to share the recipe for caponata before they closed their doors–but he never did.
I’ve been experimenting for years now, attempting to duplicate it. Here’s what I’ve come up with. It’s not identical, but it’s pretty darned good.

Caponata

1/2 cup olive oil
4 cups chopped onions
4 cups diced celery
8 cups diced eggplant
1 large ripe bell pepper (red, yellow or orange–not green)
4-6 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 15-oz. can plum tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1 15-oz. can black olives (roughly chopped)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2-3 tablespoons each minced oregano, thyme and basil
1-2 tablespoons minced rosemary
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco or red pepper flakes
salt to taste

Heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil in a large dutch oven. Saute the onions and celery until translucent, then add the garlic and saute for another minute or so. Remove those vegetables, and saute the bell pepper for about five minutes. Add the bell pepper to the celery onion mixture. Heat the remaining olive oil and saute the eggplant until it is about half done, then toss all of the vegetables together, along with the remaining ingredients. Stir it all together, cover it tightly and simmer it for an hour or two, stirring regularly. The whole glorious mess should coalesce into a thick, unctuous, chunky goo. Taste it and adjust the seasonings–you want a nice sweet-and-sour balance. (Tony swore that Anna’s caponata had no sugar in it. Do I believe him? Well…maybe.)
Chill it overnight and serve it with crusty bread–or anything else that sounds good to you. This is a big recipe; it makes a lot and it keeps for days, just getting better.

It lends itself to lots of variations. During tomato season (now–at last!), I generally use fresh tomatoes and eggplant out of the garden, along with whatever herbs I happen to gather. You can chop up zucchini and throw it in too. Caponata is very forgiving.

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