Caponata is a traditional Sicilian dish starring a mélange of fried eggplant, onions and tomatoes cooked in oil and in vinegar. Sweet and tangy, caponata most often appears as a relish or part of an antipasto platter.
At Freshwater, an urban bistro overlooking Southwest Trafficway, chef Calvin Davis skips the addition of capers or olives, instead opting for house-cured white anchovy fillets.
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Davis, who developed a taste for freshwater fish while growing up at Stockton Lake, Mo., serves caponata as a side dish alongside farm-raised Iowa barramundi or Colorado striped bass.
Meanwhile, vegetables arrive almost daily from farms in and around the Kansas City metro area. That kind of sourcing — known in the industry as hyperlocal — means Freshwater’s menus are reformulated daily.
“We get everything in the door — and then figure out what we want to do with it,” Davis says. “Our menu is kind of a list of ingredients, prepared in different ways. It’s all about adaptability.”
And, that’s how the Freshwater fusion tostada — featuring caponata — was born.
Think of a fried tortilla made from local masa spread with hyperlocal caponata, topped with roasted baby squash and “mixed pickles” available from the restaurant’s well-stocked larder, then finished with crumbles of house-made ricotta.
Makes 20 (2-tablespoon) servings as a relish, or 8 side-dish servings
3 medium-sized eggplants, medium-dice
1 gallon vegetable oil, for frying
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 whole yellow onion, medium-dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, medium-dice
1 jalapeno or other pepper with similar heat level, finely chopped
2 medium–ripe red tomatoes (about 3 cups)
5 white anchovy fillets, drained and rinsed
¼ cup sherry vinegar
10 large basil leaves, chopped into 1/16th-inch pieces
Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and allow to drain in a colander at least 1 hour to draw out excess moisture.
In a large stock pot, heat vegetable oil to 325 degrees and cook eggplant, turning occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove eggplant with a slotted spoon and place on a parchment–lined tray to cool to room temperature. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large sauce pot, heat olive oil on medium-high and saute onion, garlic and peppers until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Lower heat and add tomatoes and anchovies and cook until juices from the tomatoes evaporates. Add eggplant and vinegar and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes on medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Allow to cool to room temperature. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Garnish with basil and serve immediately, or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
Farm-to-table goes into overdrive
The National Restaurant Association says “hyperlocal” is a hot trend for 2018.
Freshwater chef and owner Calvin Davis estimates most of the ingredients used at his restaurant are grown within a 60-mile radius of Kansas City. “We get everything from as close as we can get it,” he says.
Nearly a dozen farmers make weekly deliveries to the restaurant, and Davis fills in the gaps with items he buys at the City Market and Brookside farmers markets.
“People ask me ‘Does it really make a difference?’” Davis says. “Of course, it does. It’s the taste of a place.”
Hyperlocal sourcing can be time consuming, even limiting, for the chef. For instance, when Freshwater opened in May, a cold, rainy spring meant Davis had to get creative with chickweed and dandelion greens.
As a bumper crop of fruit and vegetables arrive throughout the month, the Freshwater kitchen crew will be busy stockpiling the larder with pickles, preserves and relishes.
But already Davis is working to track down a new crop of farmers with the ability to extend the growing season with greenhouses and root cellars.
“I love spring and summer,” he says, “but I’m really excited for winter, to see what direction the menu will take.”