It's something you just have to feel

I love this video posted by Michelle at Bleeding Espresso featuring one of my favorite calciatori (footballers) and my grandfather's homeland. It actually gives me goosebumps - even though I can barley understand what he's saying...

I'm inexplicably overwhelmed with pride and nostalgia. Having never been there personally, I can't really explain why. I just am.

Makes me want to cook something rustic...

I've just returned from Italy where I spent 10 days improving my Italian (speaking and cooking) and my first experiment in deliciousness was Caponata, an Italian-ish version of ratatouille (the French Proven├žal stewed vegetable dish) and a nice twist on what basically amounts to sweet and sour vegetables.

There was something divinely earthy about making this provincial dish. In fact, the entire experience was a little otherworldly, from the walk to the market to select the vegetables to the clipping of fresh basil from the garden and perusing an old Italian cookbook while the most heavenly smells of garlic, onion and vinegar swirled in the crosswinds of the open kitchen door. Is it possible to be high on aromatics?

The sun was shining, the birds were signing, and the only language in the house was Italian. Heavenly, I tell you. Simply heavenly.

In Italy, a cookbook is regarded more as a collection of suggested guidelines rather than the explicit instructions I tend to follow to the letter. I like recipes. They provide a comforting sense of order to an otherwise chaotic world. And few things bum me out more than a botched meal.

But I am slowly learning how to color outside the lines and this particular dish is a perfect example of how imprecise cooking can be.

The original recipe was the traditional Sicilian version with celery and olives. We had neither, but decided that the bell peppers in the fridge would work nicely. It also called for half a glass of vinegar. What size glass? No clue. There were some pretty specific measurements given for some of the other ingredients, all in metric weights of course, but there was neither a scale nor a single measuring utensil anywhere in sight. Gadzooks.

I thought of all the times I have frustrated my husband to no end asking him to quantify the random ingredients he was throwing in a pot to clear out the fridge or the exact amount of time one should cook a pasta or risotto since one or two minutes on either side of perfect usually results in either too hard or too mushy. "I don't know, Amore," he says, trying not to sound completely exasperated, "until it's done. Don't try to measure it, it's something you just have to feel."

That's when it occurred to me that I wasn't here to learn how to follow Italian recipes. I was finally getting some insight into the elusive concept of kitchen intuition - that incredible gift of knowingness that allows some people to stumble into a kitchen and pull incredible gourmet feasts out of thin air. I'm a long way from that, but the leash that tethers me to my measuring cups is getting a little more slack.

I did my best to eyeball the quantities of everything that was going into the pot and to scribble down notes in between frantic bouts of chopping, stirring and quasi-measuring. But just to be sure, I cross-reference the quantities with my Italian cooking bible and I'll be damned - Mamma Eugenia was spot on. As always.

Caponata in Agrodolce
a mash-up from Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and The Silver Spoon
Serves 4-6

1-3/4 pounds (1kg) eggplant, diced or sliced in strips
1/2 cup (100g) olive oil
1 celery stalk chopped (apparently optional)
1 each red and yellow bell pepper, sliced in strips (our substitute for the celery)
1 onion, thinly sliced (we used two)
14oz (500g) ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar (we used red, worked fine)
1 cup pitted olives (black or green)
3 tablespoons (50g) capers (we used a whole cup in lieu of the olives)
1 tablespoon each golden raisins and pine nuts (optional, but lovely)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Freshly torn basil leaves and grated parmesan, to garnish

Having never been much of an eggplant fan, I suspect it may be because I never knew how to prepare them properly. My diligent adherence to recipes sometimes fails when it calls for the extra effort of a seemingly extraneous step like "sweating" an eggplant. If you're using smaller eggplants you can probably get away with skipping this step (as confirmed by this major food publisher), however if you do opt for the larger ones or if you have time, I would definitely recommend it. I do it now regardless of the need. Partially because I just don't want to take any chances with my food, but mostly because I like to imagine my great-grandmother having done the same. What can I say, I'm a sucker for tradition.

So start by slicing the eggplant lengthwise and rubbing some salt into both sides of each piece. Place them vertically in a colander and let them stand. I prefer to leave them for an hour but 30 minutes should be enough. Rinse off the salt, pat them dry with paper towels and either dice them or cut them lengthwise in strips.

Heat 5 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet, add the eggplant and cook over medium heat until they are golden (dorata). Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in another skillet, add the celery (or bell peppers or both), onion, and tomatoes and cook over low heat for 10-15 minutes until nicely thickened and pulpy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If you're pressed for time (or just don't want to wash an extra pot), you can also cook the eggplant together with the celery, onion and peppers as we did. Just wait until the veggies are cooked just enough to brighten their color before adding the tomatoes.

Next, stir in the sugar, vinegar, olives, capers (and if you're using them, throw in the pine nuts and raisins) and bring to a boil over low heat. Then add the eggplants and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Garnish with freshly torn basil leaves and a grating of parmesan. This also makes an excellent antipasto, served warm or cold.

Enjoy it with some crusty bread, a glass of wine. Yes, even if it's lunchtime.

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