I’ve been greatly enamored of Mama Lil’s peppers lately. If you haven’t had them, they are hot little pickled goathorn peppers packed in olive oil. They are made here in Seattle, so you can support a local business while discovering a delicious new taste.
I thought it would be fun to use Mama Lil’s in caponata, a classic Sicilian appetizer of sautéed eggplant in a sweet and sour (agrodolce) sauce. Sicily is close to North Africa, so they often incorporate complex flavors that are not so common in savory dishes around the rest of Italy, like the cinnamon and cocoa powder used here. These flavors aren’t dominant, but add an interesting background to the dish.
Now I’m not kidding when I say this panini is spicy! If you don’t like seriously hot stuff, you can make this with roasted red bell peppers instead, and add a pinch of chili flakes and a bit more vinegar.
You can easily make the caponata in a day or two in advance, and then use it for panini in a hurry on a weeknight.
Spicy Caponata Panini
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
1/2 cup Mama Lil’s Peppers
1 medium eggplant, about 13 ounces, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tsp. capers
5 pitted green olives, sliced
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1/2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. minced rosemary leaves (preferably fresh)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
8 large slices of rustic Italian bread (not too thick)
2 cups grated scamorza cheese (or a mixture of smoked and regular mozzarella)
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drain the oil from the peppers into the pan, reserving the peppers. If that hasn’t yielded a couple of tablespoons of oil, add a bit more olive oil as needed. Add the eggplant, onion, garlic and a pinch of kosher salt. Toss to coat the vegetables with oil and lower the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is thoroughly tender, browned, and no longer holding the cube shapes, about 15 minutes.
Add the reserved peppers, capers, olives, vinegar, sugar, tomato paste, cocoa powder, cinnamon, several grinds of black pepper and rosemary. Stir well and cook about 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. It may need more salt, vinegar, or spices to create a balanced flavor. Remove from the heat and mix in the parsley. At this point you can reserve the caponata in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days, or make the panini right away.
To make the panini, preheat your panini press or alternate cooking unit. Lay out four slices of bread, and top each with 1/2 cup of the caponata and 1/2 cup of the cheese. Cover with the remaining slice of bread. Cook until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 4-5 minutes. Use plenty of pressure to produce a nicely compressed sandwich. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 panini