Summer in January: Pollock with Caponata

8 Jan

Warm January days are ripe for backyard rambles -- you never know what you'll find in your backyard

An abandoned carriage in an abandoned barn

Hey there, global warming! Nothing like a series of 60 degrees sunny days in January to snap you right out of SAD.

While I always enjoy the post-holiday weeks of close-to-home hanging and hibernation before Spring’s inevitable Bacchanalia, I found that I’ve been craving balmy summer breezes, sunlit terraces, garden-fresh salads, icey adult drinks braced with bitter tonic and sharp squirts of lime this week.

Since I can’t dash off to Bermuda right now, I have happily settled for the uptick in the mercury (despite vague feelings of guilt about being thrilled by the effects of greenhouse gases)…. And a hint of August on my plate.

Variations on traditional agrodolce sauces, often in the form of caponata, always trick my mouth into thinking Summer. When I’m stuck in Winter’s gaping maw, wondering how I’m ever going to paw my way out, the versatile sauce gives me a lift.

Agrodolce (agro means sour, dolce means sweet), is a classic Italian recipe, by way of Arab cuisine. In its most basic form, it’s simply a reduction of vinegar and sugar, with other elements (oils, wine, vegetables) added in. It’s traditionally served with roasted meats or fish, and comes in many guises. Caponata is one of my favorite iterations of agrodolce’s magic.

The Caponata preparation hails from Sicily, by way of Spain, circa roughly 1709, according to the food historian Clifford Wright. These days, it is often served as an antipasto relish, but it may have gained popularity in the 18th century for its super-long shelf-life (thanks to the vinegar, which acts as a preservative); it was a staple on sea voyagers and for travelers. And the savory-sweet sauce, bursting with flavor and moxie, has also served as a helpful reminder of Summer’s bounty — just around the corner.

A hunter's blind in our woods; we're debating the back-woods ethics of taking it down since we don't use it, but we know other hunters (who don't have permission to hunt on our property)do. For now, it's staying.

Caponata generally stars eggplant, but in Italy (the birthplace of seasonal, local food ways), it can put anything you’ve got hanging around in the spotlight – as long as you balance the agro with the dolce.

When I saw a recipe for Caponata by Michael White, my current favorite chef, I couldn’t wait to try it. I ended up tweaking it a bit, but that’s only appropriate. Click on for both versions of the recipe.

Terrace-ready tastes

Pollock Caponata a la (kinda) Michael White

Makes 6 servings

Inspired by his recipe in Food & Wine

Ingredients for Roasted Pollock:

  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 TBSP butter
  • 1 1/22 pounds Pollock fillets, cleaned and trimmed (or sub in another white fish; Pollock’s taste is comparable to Cod, but it’s only about $8.99 a pound for wild-caught at Whole Foods, much less than Cod)
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat butter and oil in oven-safe skillet. When hot, add lightly seasoned Pollock and fry until golden on each side, about 3 minutes per. Roast in the oven until cooked through. Squirt with lemon juice and set aside, keeping warm.

Ingredients for Caponata:

  •  2 TBSP olive oil
  • 4 medium-sized ribs of celery, sliced fine
  • ½ onion, diced fine
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups tomato sauce (canned is fine or recipe is below)
  • ½ cup white wine
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • 12 ounces marinated artichokes, drained and chopped
  • ½ cup black olives, cut in half
  • 1 TBSP sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins (if you hate raisins, sugar can be substituted)
  • 2 TBSP chopped fresh basil, or 1 TBSP dried
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


  • Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and garlic and cook until softened and translucent. Deglaze with wine and cook until slightly reduced, a few minutes. Add everything else, cook until flavors blend and meld, reduce slightly, for about 10 minutes. Set aside. (This can be done a few days ahead). Warm before serving.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble

Ingredients for Pasta Sauce:

Makes 4 cups

  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 TBSP butter
  • ½ yellow onion, minced
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and cut fine
  • 1 medium stalk celery, cut fine
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes with basil
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • Hearty pinch sugar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste


  • Heat olive oil and butter in medium-sized Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, salt, cook until translucent. Add carrots and cook until softened. Add celery and cook until softened, stirring all ingredients as you go. This should take about 5-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add can of crushed tomatoes, salt and peppers. Bring to boil. Add water, sugar, reduce to simmer. Simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes. Give it a quick zip in a blender to smooth out any veggie chunks. Set aside (this can be done a few days ahead).

Ingredients for Couscous:

  • 1 TBSP butter
  • 2 cups dried Israeli couscous
  • 2 1/2 Cups chicken stock
  • 2 TBSP fresh chives, chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


  • Heat butter in saucepan. Add couscous and toast in fat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add stock or water, bring to boil, cover and let stand for 5-10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Fluff with fork, season, add chives.

To assemble:

  • Place couscous on large platter, add roasted Pollock, spoon about a cup of Caponata over the top and serve, passing more Caponata around the table. Bonus: you will have a few cups of Caponata leftover – perfect for pairing with grilled veggies for a quick pita sandwich, or for setting out as a relish with antipasto and crackers.

Nutritional Breakdown of Pollock Caponata, with a hearty serving of Caponata: About 475 calories and 14 grams of fat. Great source of high-quality protein, Omega-3 fats, Vitamin Bs, Phosphorus, selenium. High in cholesterol.

Cost Breakdown for Pollock Caponata: About $5 per serving.

Verdict / In the Future: I would try this Caponata with grilled squid or roasted shrimp too, maybe even as a relish for leg of lamb, rabbit or goat – or another assertive, gamey meat.

... The charm is firm and good

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