Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guest Post:: Caponata (Tomato and Bread Salad)

Thanks to SHeil for this dish, straight from her authentically Italian grandmother's garden.

This is a central Italian bread and tomato salad. It is a great way to turn fresh tomatoes from the garden into a quick, healthy, delicious lunch. There are many different regional versions of the caponata, but this is the 'correct' one, according to my grandmother, who lives in Salerno (which is in the second wrinkle in the ankle of the boot). This recipe may look long at first, but once you know how much seasoning goes into the tomatoes, it's really very quick and simple: seasoned tomatoes and crunchy bread cubes. If you have been storing the tomatoes in your fridge, shame on you. You've created nasty, inedible, bitter things, only good for sauce, BUT you can redeem yourself SLIGHTLY by leaving them on the windowsill for a few hours before you use them.

I hate to say the best bread for this salad is made only in Italy, but it's true. However, you can cheat relatively well with a good baguette, or other fresh, hearty loaf of crusty bread. For this recipe, I used half a baguette I had in the bread bin, and it was very good. When you season and toast the bread they will look like giant croutons, but making them yourself is essential. You can make them ahead of time and store them, but they only take about 10 minutes to cut and bake, so it really doesn't matter, and fresh will be better.

The ingredients are all rough estimations as this is not a picky recipe. You really just need even proportions of bread and tomatoes; you can use according to taste. Use a little more or less of some things, according to your taste. Just don't skimp on the olive oil, you're skinny enough. Trust me.


You'll need:
  • several ripe tomatoes (4 big/6 medium should do)
  • half a baguette
  • 1/3 cup relatively good extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for drizzling
  • a medium handful of FRESH basil, torn into little pieces
  • a large clove FRESH garlic
  • sea/kosher salt (about 1.5 Tbsp) *Kosher/sea salt is WAY better, but regular salt will not kill you in a pinch. It's just not nearly as good, and you'll have to live with that.
  • a little pepper

for the tomatoes

Get a medium mixing bowl. Roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the bowl. Less seeds are better, so leave that seedy juice puddle on the board, but you don't have to be obsessive about removing every seed from the tomatoes. Pour the oil over the tomatoes, about 1/3 c,
enough to generously drizzle over the whole pile.

Salt the tomatoes generously (about 1.5 T, enough to shake evenly and lightly over the whole
bowl--you should be able to see salt, but the tomatoes should not be drowning in it). Tear up your handful of basil (you can chop, but tearing releases the flavor better) and add that to the bowl. Finely mince the garlic clove (I just use a garlic press right in the bowl) and add that to
the bowl. Add around 5 twists of the pepper grinder-you'll want enough to very lightly coat the tomatoes. Toss everything together.

At this point smell the bowl. Yes, smell it. It should smell really fantastic, like a good Italian restaurant, or your Italian grandmother's kitchen, and you should be able to smell the tomatoes, basil, salt, and oil about the same amount. If all you are smelling is tomatoes, add more basil. If it smells fruity, add a little more salt. If there is not a little puddle of oil under the tomatoes (or there are not drops of oil in the juice under the tomatoes), add a little more oil (the tomatoes should glisten). Then, taste a piece. It should taste very slightly salty, because you have to
add seasoning for the bread you'll add later. If it tastes really salty, add more tomato. Again, this is not a picky recipe, adjust to your tastes. It should be tasty all by itself, albeit a little salty, at this point.

for the bread

Slice the baguette half into 1-inch wide slices, then cut the slices into cubes about 1-1.5 inches wide. Dump them all on a cookie sheet, spray them lightly with olive oil, and put them in the
oven at around 400 degrees F. The point is to get them very lightly golden, but crunchy throughout. Crunchy is the important part. You do not want crunchy outside, squishy inside. The whole cube must be crunchy. Seriously. Watch them, as this will not take long, and flip them when the tops become golden, so that most sides have a chance to become golden.


Simply toss the bread cubes with the tomato/herb mixture. The key is to not toss them together until the very last moment before serving, or the bread will become soggy and unappetizing. The bread should absorb the tomato juice in the bottom of the mixing bowl and be a happy medium between crunchy and chewy.

If your bread is very crunchy, and you do not like the texture, simply dip your bread cubes VERY quickly in water right before adding them to the bowl of tomatoes, again making sure to do this right before serving. You should only have to do this with either really dry tomatoes, or really dense, grainy bread.

Tutti a tavola a mangiare! (the italian equivalent of bon appetito!, literally means "everyone to table to eat!", or "let's eat!")

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