When I worked at an Italian restaurant in Upstate New York, one of the chefs I cooked alongside used to make some version of this dish for family meal whenever it was his turn to cook. The other sous chefs and cooks and I knew it as “couscous with stuff on top.”
The “stuff on top” usually consisted of sauteed or roasted seasonal vegetables – whatever looked tired or was on the verge of molding in the walk-in. It could be anything: wrinkly spring peas and limp cabbage, squishy tomatoes and onions, black-eyed peas and yellowing mustard greens. When it was good, it was really good. And when it wasn’t, well, it was a free meal.
Sometimes there was protein, but then things got even more . . . creative. Chicken legs braised in prune juice were memorable, as was the night we got sliced hot dogs and pickles atop a mound of feathery couscous, a dollop of neon-yellow mustard on the side.
For me, one thing set the good versions of this dish apart from the rest. Occasionally, my former colleague would plate the couscous on top of a small mound of goat cheese.
Under the hot couscous, the goat cheese melted into a creamy, salty, tangy puddle. It’s a neat trick, so I’m sharing it here in this version of “couscous with stuff on top.” It’s a pile of warm couscous atop a smear of creamy goat cheese that gets topped with caponata.
In a twist, this version of the Sicilian eggplant dish is made on a sheet pan in the oven, so you don’t have to bother with any deep- or pan-frying. It’s also how the Italian restaurant I worked at made it, with tomato paste and cinnamon for depth, sherry vinegar for brightness and raisins and brown sugar for balance. It’s great on top of the couscous and with the melty goat cheese, but it’s also a great way to turn a late-summer bounty into dinner.
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Sheet Pan Caponata and Couscous With Goat Cheese
Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 50 minutes
Any kind of eggplant works here, but I prefer the long, skinny Japanese variety. If you use a globe eggplant, make sure it’s fresh – it should be heavy, firm and pert, with taut, shiny skin – to ensure it won’t be too bitter. If you have time, you can cut the eggplant up, sprinkle it with a pinch of salt and let it sit in a colander or dish cloth for 15 to 30 minutes, until some of its moisture, and bitterness, has leached out.
The caponata recipe also works with summer squash.
If you don’t have couscous, you can use any other grain, such as fonio, quinoa, farro, rice or even orzo.
If you don’t like goat cheese, use cream cheese, feta or ricotta instead.
FOR THE CAPONATA
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound Japanese or globe eggplant, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium yellow or red onion (8 to 10 ounces), chopped
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 medium tomato (6 to 8 ounces), chopped
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons light brown sugar or honey, or to taste
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, or to taste, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper, or to taste
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup raisins (any kind)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, pepitas or chopped walnuts
1/4 to 1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar, or to taste
FOR THE COUSCOUS
1 1/2 cups water or low-sodium chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
1 1/2 cups (about 9 ounces) couscous
3 ounces soft goat cheese, or more if desired
1/4 cup torn fresh basil, mint or parsley (optional)
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees.
Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Add the eggplant, onion, bell pepper, tomato and garlic and use your hands to toss everything together. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil on top, followed by the brown sugar or honey, salt, cinnamon and black pepper. Toss again, then spread into an even layer.
Roast for 20 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and, using tongs or a spatula, flip and redistribute vegetables so they cook evenly. Return the baking sheet to the oven and roast for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until vegetables are cooked through and browned. Transfer the pan to a heatproof surface. Mash the garlic cloves into a paste. Push the vegetables aside to expose a small area of the hot metal and place the tomato paste on it. Using a wooden spoon, stir the tomato paste into the vegetables, followed by the raisins, nuts or seeds, water and vinegar; stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, adjusting with more vinegar, sugar, salt and/or pepper as desired.
Make the couscous: About 10 minutes before the eggplant is finished roasting, in a medium lidded saucepan over high heat, bring the water or stock, olive oil and salt to a rolling boil. Immediately pour in the couscous, ensuring it’s moistened throughout, then cover, remove from the heat and let it steam for about 5 minutes, or until all of the liquid has been absorbed.
To serve, portion about a quarter of the goat cheese into the center of each plate. Top with a pile of couscous and some of the caponata. Garnish with the torn herbs and more goat cheese, if desired.
Nutrition per serving (1 cup of caponata and 1 cup of couscous per person, plus 2 tablespoons of goat cheese), based on 4 | Calories: 692; Total Fat: 35 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 10 mg; Sodium: 890 mg; Carbohydrates: 78 g; Dietary Fiber: 11 g; Sugars: 16 g; Protein: 17 g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.
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