In the Valentino family cookbook from 1990, my Uncle Tom included a forward from an unknown author about “the joy of growing up Italian”: Those Sunday dinners when everyone squeezed into one tiny house after Mass, the smell of sizzling onions and garlic throughout, fresh-picked tomatoes and basil, how perfectly the fresh loaf of Italian bread sopped up the “gravy” (sauce, that is).
Mostly, the author talked about their whole family getting together, yelling, laughing, cooking, kids, kids, kids, everywhere.
This was also my family to a T, for many years. We always had big, loud Italian dinners. Not a Sunday would go by without someone getting a gravy stain on their shirt, or another lying on the floor after eating too much.
My family is a lot smaller now, and dispersed throughout the East Coast. Many of the people who I consider the heart of our family, including my grandmother, have died. Sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile with the reality that we can’t go back to those times, those Sunday dinners that as a kid, I would find normal, even boring (but always delicious). Now, I see them as the golden years. I miss the house full of voices, my grandmother’s fuzzy hair, the smell of her perfume and how good she made the house smell with her cooking.
But I still have this old Valentino cookbook. It’s like a portal back to those dinners, to my family. One of the recipes we frequently turn to is Aunt Mary Moroco’s caponata, a Sicilian dish of fried eggplant in a snappy, salty tomato sauce. It has 11 ingredients, including the salt and pepper, and many of which you can find in your pantry right now.
On my recent trip back to the East Coast, my mom made that caponata. It tasted like all the times my grandmother had made it, to be served alongside pasta and meatballs, crusty bread and salad. Or scooped into a bowl all by itself for a quick lunch.
It’s easy to make (trust me: I’ve cooked it plenty of times myself), and perfect for eggplant season. Caponata is best eaten cold, hot and every temperature in between.
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Aunt Mary Moroco’s Caponata
1 eggplant, skin on and diced small
1 celery stalk, sliced thin
1 onion, chopped
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup tomato sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
½ pound green olives, cut in pieces
1 jar capers
¼ cup vinegar
Fry eggplant until softened, about five minutes. Add celery and onion and cook until softened and translucent, about five minutes more. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook for 10 more minutes, or until the mixture has cooked down and the flavors have melded.
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