Eggplant is a polarizing food – you either love it or you hate it. It’s the unsung hero of the harvest season and it’s the star of a dish called caponata. The other ingredients are important too, bringing their own flair. Because there are so many players, there’s a fair amount of prep, but all that chopping is worth it. You have a versatile sweet-and-sour condiment that represents sun and Summer in a delicious way. Typically an antipasto, it works well on crusty baguette slices. Toss leftovers with pasta for a quick dinner, or spoon it on top of a bed of greens for a light lunch. Whatever you decide, enjoy your caponata with a rich glass of red and soak in the last rays of the season.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of salt on top. Fill a heavy soup pot with enough olive oil to come up the side 1/2-inch (about 3 cups), and place it over high heat. Test the oil by placing the handle of a wooden spoon in the middle of the pot. When the oil vigorously bubbles around the spoon, it’s ready. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding, carefully drop in the eggplant pieces and fry until they turn a deep golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove the eggplant with a spider or a slotted spoon and place the eggplant on the salted paper towels to drain.
When all the eggplant has been fried, pour the spent oil into another pot and set it aside to cool. Wipe any seeds out of the original pot, place it back on the stove over medium heat, and add 1 tablespoon of fresh olive oil. When it shimmers, sprinkle in the pepper flakes, then add the onion and 1½ teaspoons of salt and sauté for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. When the onion is translucent, add the red bell pepper and sauté until the onions start to lightly brown, another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the celery and cook for a minute or so, until it softens but still has a bite.
Push the vegetables to the edges of the pot and spoon the tomato paste into the center. Cook the paste for a couple of minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn. Dark brown is good, black is not, and it changes quickly, so keep watch. Stir in the garlic and sauté for a minute, mixing all the vegetables together, then stir in the vinegar. Fold in the mint, raisins, pine nuts, and capers, then add the fried eggplant. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange juice and zest. Spoon the caponata into a serving bowl, garnish with a few mint leaves and serve with slices of baguette.
Can you make this ahead? Absolutely! The flavors will deepen if you let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. Just remember to allow time for it to come up to room temperature before serving. The dish will keep for a week in the fridge.