Anatomy of an F-Up: Eggplant Caponata

by Jason Roth on July 21, 2009

I am neither proud nor excited to introduce to you today a brand new, ongoing feature on this website.

“Anatomy of an F-Up” will cover notably botched home kitchen exercises that result in poorly conceived, overcooked, undercooked, oversalted, underseasoned, incompetently plated, or hopelessly, unartistically, uninspiredly combined flavors that would have and should have remained entirely appealing had they still been sitting on their respective, separate shelves rather than idiotically being added to the same goddamn pot or pan. I am hoping, by deeming this column “ongoing”, I will not be defining that term as “often”. Nevertheless, these things happen, and conducting the occasional post-mortem might be instructive. These are the recipes I’ve really screwed up.

Eggplant caponata. I didn’t think I could F this one up so well, but I found a way. And I can’t even blame the chef who invented the recipe. Make that “chefs”. Intuitively, I somehow realized that it would take the combination and destruction of two chefs’ recipes in order to really blow this. Therefore, in addition to Giovanna Tornabene’s recipe, I also found inspiration in Mario Batali’s.

How did this dish go wrong? Let us count the ways:

  1. Using store-bought, bottled tomato sauce as a substitute for fresh tomato sauce. I debated about whether to list this item before the next, but ultimately, I think it’s what inflicted the most damage. I used Newman’s Own Marinara Sauce, and not to speak disrespectfully of the dead, but your sauce is too sweet, Paul. Initially, I thought the store-bought sauce would serve as a back-up to the cup of frozen sauce I thought I might still have in the fridge. But as I began to make the recipe, I realized it required 3 cups of sauce, a requirement I couldn’t meet. (See item #2.) It was like using salted chicken broth in place of homemade stock. Bad idea from the start. The dish was way too sweet.
  2. Not reading (i.e., mentally processing) the recipe thoroughly before starting. Had I thought about it, I probably (hopefully) would not have wanted to make a recipe that consisted of 3 cups of something you can buy in a store. The idea was to cook something, not assemble it out of pre-made parts. (I can picture it now: “Mmm… this is delicious. How did you make it?” “Well, first I grasped the lid, and then I turned it. But the really tough part was pouring it out of the jar.”)
  3. First time ever making the dish and yet cooking it at the last minute for a large group. You’ll notice there are three components to this mistake, but I’ve done all of them separately, even two at a time, and come out ok. The problem was all three at once: first time, last minute, and large group. Technically, I have done all three of these at once, but the difference was that I diversified and had other, safer dishes to back me up. This eggplant caponata was to be the only dish I would bring to a party, so I had to stand completely behind this one bowl of slop. (See item #4.)
  4. Too much tomato sauce in the recipe (3 cups for 3 eggplants). I gave Ms. Tornabene a break an waited until #4 before mentioning this, considering I used the jarred stuff, but I just can’t see how 3 cups of any sauce would be good in this recipe. There’s just way too much tomato, and the delicious eggplant I had taken the time to fry up in batches was completely overpowered. It was also a shame that the crispy, browned eggplant squares would be made mushy in so much liquid. I had raised an eyebrow when I noticed the smaller amount of sauce in Batali’s recipe (1/4 cup for 2 eggplants), and I should have went with my gut and poured in a little at a time. Hmm… how many times have I said that to myself?
  5. Using sweetened cocoa. The cocoa was an ingredient I took from the Batali recipe, but his called for the unsweetened variety. I figured, hey, I’m adding sugar already and the dish is supposed to be sweet, so what’s a little more sugar? Well, for one thing: it’s too sweet! Having a plan B for dealing with the extra sweetness might have been nice.
  6. Adding the cinnamon from the Batali recipe and winging it on the measurement. Clearly, I can’t fault Batali for adding cinnamon to his recipe, since it wasn’t his recipe I was making. But in my version, it basically resulted in a cinnamon flavored tomato sauce. Ouch.
  7. Too much vinegar. With all the other problems going on here, I have less confidence that this is one of them. But the 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar in the recipe still seems like too much to me. One reason I feel justified in dishing out this complaint is the innocuous looking phrase “or to taste” sitting after it. Just too much liquid in this recipe.
  8. Serving it. Bringing the dish to the party and serving it, despite my misgivings about it, was my last mistake. The rationale was twofold: (1) I had just spent an hour and a half before work making it, and (2) maybe it wasn’t that bad. And maybe it wasn’t. Some of it was eaten. But the fact was that it wasn’t that good, and if I didn’t like it that much, I shouldn’t have brought it.

I clearly have a few things to learn from this experience. And one of these days, I fully intend to do so.

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