Okay, we have a week left of summer and I’m milking it for everything it’s worth. Right now I have peaches ripening in my fruit bowl and I’m going to make peach ice cream, probably the last ice cream I’ll make for a while. It’s not that summer truly ends here in L.A. — if anything it keeps going and going and going — but at some point, as a seasonally-focused home cook, you’ve gotta embrace the calendar. So right now it’s tomato salads galore; next week it’ll be pumpkin bread.
And a great transitional dish? Caponata. “What’s caponata?” you ask. Think ratatouille with the dial turned up to eleven. Instead of a bunch of stewed summer vegetables, you have deeply browned eggplant, earthy celery, briny capers, and then red wine vinegar, sugar (yes, there’s sugar), and white wine. It’s sort of like an eggplant pickle but also an eggplant salad and also an eggplant condiment.
Not to pat myself on the back too eagerly, but it takes a certain talent to adapt a fancy restaurant dish into something that you’d really want to eat at home. Years ago, when I was lucky enough to eat at Jean-Georges, I ate one of his more famous dishes: a thin sliver of cauliflower balanced on a perfectly seared scallop sitting in a pool of a delightfully exotic caper raisin sauce. That sauce was unforgettable: both sweet and briny and endlessly fascinating. I knew I had to make it for Sauce Week, but I didn’t want to do anything overly fussy with the cauliflower and scallops. What I ended up making is maybe one of the best weeknight dinners I’ve ever made, and the sauce is so easy, you won’t believe your eyes.
You’re not going to believe me, but I’m telling you the truth: the dinner you see above? It’s cheap and easy.
Don’t balk! I kid you not. Last Monday, I made this dinner for less than $20 and it was one of the best things that I’ve made in a long time. I didn’t even use a recipe, I just whipped it up based on an idea I had. The idea went something like this: what if I buy chicken thighs and braise them in white wine vinegar with onions, garlic, olives, capers, and cherry tomatoes and serve it all on plain couscous? It seemed like a foolproof plan for deliciousness.
Here’s a secret for successful cooking: follow your urge. Too often we punish ourselves with recipes that are supposed to be good for us or easy to do instead of trusting the greatest tool we have, the little voice in our head that tells us what we’re hungry for.
If you have a craving for pizza or pasta or Lobster Thermidor, that’s a very lucky thing: that’s your body telling you what will make it happiest. Pay close attention, then, and react accordingly. For example, on Friday night my body had an urge for cauliflower. Not just any cauliflower, though: the roasted cauliflower I had with Heidi and Bruce at Pizza Delfina in San Francisco. It’s an entire head of cauliflower roasted with capers and red chile flakes and all other kinds of seasonings.
I thought I’d have to wing it, but then I found this recipe on Epicurious and you know what? It was awesome. You just take a head of cauliflower, get rid of the green, rub the whole thing with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and pop into a 450 oven until it’s dark golden brown. When it comes out, you pour a vinaigrette made with olive oil, lemon juice and capers over the top. I added some red chile flakes to give it some heat and served it up with the leftover pork from the other night.
Oh my, how it hit the spot. See? Take my advice: listen to your craving. It guarantees success each and every time you cook. Unless, of course, you have a craving for food that is unsuccessful. That’s a conundrum even I can’t solve.