Margherita’s Cabonatina

There needs to be a reason to grow something in a small garden. More to the point, there needs to be a compelling reason to take up space that could otherwise be allocated to a known and proven plant. Every year I set aside a little space to try something new – a new pepper variety, a different tomato, a herb I can’t readily purchase. This year, a new-for-us plant is eggplant.

While the eggplants we have harvested have been used in a number of very tasty recipes, there is one recipe in particular that prompted me to plant eggplant, and steal some of that valuable space. That one dish is one I grew up with and I could not replicate until recently, with the use of the Aga stove versus using a stove-top burner. That recipe is Margherita’s Cabonatina.

I briefly mentioned Margherita when I wrote about Francis’s Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce. Margherita and Francis were husband and wife and were like my adoptive Italian grandparents. Everyone needs an Italian grandmother so you can taste and feast upon no end of treats. One of those treats was cabonatina, an eggplant and tomato dish. I tried to make this for years with little success. While I had the basic recipe, it was not complete. My guess is this is often the case with grandmothers’ recipes, especially those she has made for decades. The recipe she started with had long since been replaced by feel, and memory, and smell, and the look.

Last December a friend gave us a few eggplants she grew and we decided to try cabonatina again, this time up by the garden where we have an Aga stove. For those not familiar with Aga’s, they are a stove like no other. They are always on. You do not adjust the temperature of a burner or oven for a particular dish. Our Aga has two ovens, one runs about 425 degrees and the other about 210 degrees. The upper oven is great for roasting the eggplant and the lower oven is great at slow cooking the entire dish. It holds heat and moisture. Recipes just work better with an Aga.

If you are not fortunate enough to have access to an Aga and it is not winter so the wood cook stove is not fired up, try this in an oven. Although I did not use a lid to slow cook everything, you might have to partially cover the assembled ingredients so it doesn’t dry out too quickly.

Margherita's Cabonatina

  • Servings: +/- 3 pints
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  • 2 1/2 – 3 pounds eggplant (I used Orient Express, a tender, mild variety), 1/2 – 3/4 inch dice
  • 3 stalks celery, 1/4 – 1/2 inch dice
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 1 15oz can tomato sauce
  • 2/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Directions (in a 2 oven Aga)
Spread eggplant in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, with no oil or salt. Roast in upper oven (about 425 degrees) for about 20 – 25 minutes, or until cooked and soft.

In a heavy dutch oven, cook celery, onion and garlic with the 2 tablespoons oil, in the upper oven until cooked, but not caramelized (about 40 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Add capers and saute on low burner (about medium – medium high) for 5 minutes.

Add can of tomato sauce, and cook on low burner for about 5 – 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add red wine vinegar, cooked eggplant, sugar, and salt. Bring to boil, stirring frequently.

When at a boil, transfer to lower oven and cook about 1 1/2 hours until desired consistency, stirring occasionally, uncovered. If using a regular oven, you might need to partially cover and stir more frequently.

Let cool and store in refrigerator. I think it tastes best at room temperature.

Old Fashioned Bread and Butter Pickles

bowl of cucumbers, onions, red pepper for pickles

“Bread and Butter Pickles.” My taste buds smile when I say that. I remember these as a kid and I still look forward to having these around the house. These are so good they are an accompanying vegetable on their own – no need to relegate these to a sandwich or anything. Just grab a spoon and scoop them onto your plate. A taste of summer all year.

jars of bread and butter pickles

So far this summer we have been able to harvest enough of our garden grown cucumbers for a batch of our half-sour pickles and a batch of these bread and butter pickles. We also had enough of our Carmen peppers that were ripe to use in the recipe. Because we generally like to use a combination of sliced and little pearl onions, only some of the onions were ours. Now, if only I could get the beets to grow I could make pickled beets again. Expert help for that is on the way so hopefully they can set me straight.

bread and butter pickle ingredients on a table

Old Fashioned Bread and Butter Pickles


  • 2 quarts sliced cucumber (minus 1 cup if adding red peppers), sliced to desired thickness.
  • 1/2 cup kosher or pickling salt
  • 2 quarts sliced onion, or a mix of sliced and pearl onions. Thaw frozen pearl onions before using.
  • 1 cup diced red pepper (or, 2 full quarts cucumbers if not using)
  • 1 quart white vinegar, at least 5% acidity
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon celery seed
  • 2 tablespoon mustard seed
  • 1 tablespoon dried, ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

In a large mixing bowl, gently stir salt into sliced cucumbers and peppers. Cover with ice cubes and stir through mixture, add more if ice melts. Let sit 2 to 3 hours to get cucumbers crisp and cold. Drain, remove ice, and add onions.

In a pot large enough for everything, combine the vinegar, sugar, celery seed, mustard seed, ginger, and turmeric and quickly bring to a boil. Boil 10 minutes, partially covered.

Add cucumber, pepper, and onions to pot and bring to boil (this will take a while because of how cold these are).

Once at a boil, ladle into clean jars, put lids on, and process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes (adjust for altitude: add 10 minutes if above 5,000 feet).

Remove jars from canner and let cool. Don’t push down the lid. Refrigerate if one does not seal.

If you do not want to can the pickles, cook a little longer before ladling into clean jars. Seal and let cool on counter, then store in refrigerator.

Weekend Update

weekend vegetable harvest

The garden is pretty much in maintenance mode right now. The plants are looking pretty good and we avoided a hail storm that hit the area. A few of the mystery gourd/squash/pumpkins are resolving themselves. What looked like a delicata last week is looking more like one every day. The mystery pumpkin that is taking over the cucumber patch is a pumpkin, but I have no idea what kind. One of the mystery squash vines appears to be a banana squash. We had one of these last year so it is possible the seeds ended up in the compost, and then didn’t fully compost. Although these are a tasty and versatile squash, they can grow between 10 and 40 pounds. Ten pounds would be better for me.

mystery pumpkin ripening

ripening delicata squashThis past weekend we were able to harvest our first Cherokee purple and chocolate stripe tomatoes. A number of the tomatoes this year are determinant varietals. I was under the impression they would only grow to maybe four feet tall, then blossom, and we would get fruit at about the same time. Well, a few of the plants are pushing seven feet tall and are continuing to blossom. Believing the plants would stay short, I planted them a bit closer together than other varieties and used regular tomato cages to keep them upright. Those few plants are now a few feet above the cages and very dense, even after substantial pruning. If the tomatoes on those plants do mature all at once, I will be overwhelmed with tomatoes because there is a huge number of fruits forming. I think, even after the requisite use in salads and such, that I will be able to experiment with making homemade bloody Mary mix and tomato soup. I am thinking of smoking a few of the tomatoes to see what that does to them and how that smokey flavor goes in soup and bloody Mary’s. I know the testing of recipes will be arduous, especially the homemade bloody Mary’s with homegrown horseradish, but don’t worry, I’ll power through.

The Smell of Cedar

tomatillo lantern after rains

The smell of cedar lingered in the garden Sunday morning after a gentle all-night rain of 3/4 of an inch. All-night gentle rains are unusual for us as usually we get rain all at once, like if you turned a swimming pool upside-down.

After fixing a few irrigation issues everything seems on track and is progressing nicely. Even the volunteer squash/pumpkin/melon plants that started from seeds that didn’t fully compost. One of these mystery plants seems to be a delicata squash. If this plant is a delicata and if we actually harvest some, it will be the first time. I have tried growing them in the past and they never really matured. I stopped growing delicata because of a couple of years of failure. The photo is the last few feet of the mystery vine in question showing the various stages of growth.

various stages of an unknown squash

We harvested 3.5 pounds of cucumbers over the weekend, our largest single harvest in years. Most of these became half-sour pickles. A few were soaked in white wine vinegar with a some fresh garden grown red onions and a tomato. That was our first garden grown salad, a nice start to the season.

cucumbers in a bowl

The tomatillos are growing like weeds, but weeds we want. They are now about 2.5 feet taller than the support posts, so I am not sure how I will tie them up if they keep growing. Because I am anticipating, and hoping, for a bumper tomatillo crop, I am now freezing the habanero and ghost peppers I harvest for use in salsa verde.

I think we are only a few weeks away from great garden harvests. I am also working on a few recipes to use some of what is harvested. More about those when I get the taste right and remember to take a few photos.

The Wonders of Gardens

girl in her garden
Gardens are wondrous and miraculous creations where all manner of things will grow. If you start by planting seeds, whether seeds you collected and saved, purchased, or borrowed from an enterprising library, it is truly something to watch a little seed grow into a plant and for that plant to eventually produce a flower, or tomato, or cucumber, or whatever you are trying to grow. Gardens are also wonderful teachers and just a great reason to spend time with someone “being productive”. I wrote about gardens as teachers a number of years ago in The Quiet Teacher. The little girl sitting on my lap in the photo isn’t so little anymore.
boy in the garden
“My” garden is at a family house in the central Arizona mountains. It is the first vegetable garden we have tried that actually produced something and is of any size. My niece and nephew grew-up with that being one of their houses and we would all spend considerable time there escaping the Phoenix heat. Although we can’t really figure out why we got into gardening at this scale, we did, and the kids were there participating in the journey.
small vegetable garden
Jake and Ava and I spent lots and lots of time together in the garden. We planted plants, picked bouquets of flowers, harvested whatever vegetable or fruit we could, and dug lots of holes and trenches. We would often just walk around the garden talking about the different plants and smelling the various herbs. I would periodically give them pop-quizzes to test what they remembered, assuming that is what was important to them. Wherever I was, at least one of them was right there with me. I would usually try to explain why we were doing something. Jake would almost always have a suggestion for a different way. Then we would be sidetracked when a worm or slater (a pillbug here in the US) was found. We would have to find a new home for that find before we could continue with anything else.

Garden vegetables grown and picked with careNow that the kids live elsewhere we don’t spend much time together in the garden. However, we have sent them lots of seeds to start their own garden. Apparently they were paying attention during the years we spent together in the garden. Ava gives her mom directions on what to do and helps her out. Jake planted a variety of sunflowers that he is waiting to bloom, and it should be quite a variety of sizes and colors. They even went to the library to get a bunch of seeds to start. The photos this week were taken by my sister of their garden. Ava now wonders in her garden looking at the plants and playing with slaters. I am sure Jake still wants to dig trenches and holes while he waits on the sunflowers. My little helpers now grow beets better than I have been able to the last couple of years.

Now, go plant a garden with your kids, or nieces and nephews, or grandkids. Neither the size nor what you plant are important. The plants will be the least important thing that grows in your garden.