With eggplant in season, try this tasty dish from Sicily
Caponata is the very essence of traditional Sicilian food. It’s simple to make, and one of its beauties is that it can be eaten hot or cold. My personal preference is cold at least a day after making, often with a spoon straight out of the fridge. However, I’m a bit of a pig! It’s more usually eaten as part of a mixed antipasti plate or as a side dish with fish or meat.
The most basic version of caponata consists of eggplant and celery cooked down with capers in sweetened vinegar. However, in my adopted hometown of Catania, Sicily there tend to be more ingredients added. Well, why wouldn’t you make use of sweet red peppers, juicy tomatoes and fat green olives when you’ve got them growing fresh and freely?
That said, if you don’t like any of the ‘extra’ ingredients, feel free to leave them out. If it’s the raisins that you don’t like, however, do substitute a few tablespoons of sugar in with the vinegar in the last stage of cooking to give the distinctive sweet and sour element that makes this dish caponata, rather than plain old ratatouille.
Ingredients (makes 6 large portions, or 8 smaller ones)
- 1 red onion (approx 125g)
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 eggplant (approx 400g)
- 1 red bell pepper (approx 400g)
- 4 medium-sized, ripe, red tomatoes (approx 100g)
- 1 tsp salted capers
- 4-6 green olives (whole, not pitted)
- 40g seedless raisins
- 10g pinenuts
- 3 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- A bottle of Sicilian wine
- Various friends
Pour the olive oil into a large, heavy-based pot and start to heat it as you chop your onions. When they’re chopped, slide them into the oil and enjoy the sounds and smells that arise. Have a bit of wine to celebrate. Leave the onions to do their thing over a low heat until they’re well softened and beginning to caramelize a little. (Remember: caramelized, not burnt. It’s a line I cross all too often. Luckily for scatty cooks like me this is a pretty forgiving dish, but keeping carbon out of it is always better if you can.)
While the onions are softening, chop your celery stalk into fine pieces. You can leave it chunkier if you wish, but I’ve only recently been converted to its marvelous flavor-giving properties and so prefer it to be tasted, not seen. When it’s sliced to your satisfaction, add it to the onions and leave the two to soften together.
Have a bit more wine. Go on. And turn on the radio to sing along to Tiziano Ferro. Giggle like a schoolgirl at how sexy his voice is in the talky bits of “La differenza tra me e te.”
Chat to the others in the kitchen as you rough-dice the eggplant and pepper. Caponata is a peasant dish, so don’t cut them too finely. Chunky and bite-sized is good. It’s a stew, not a soup, and seeing the different elements is part of the fun of eating it.
Carry on chatting as the kitchen fills up with people oohing and aahing at the smell of frying onion and celery. Add the eggplant just before the onions start to burn and turn it around in the oniony, olive-oily, celeryish mix. Leave it to soften down, keeping a vague eye on it and stirring every so often to make sure it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan.
At the point that it starts to do so, add the pepper and give it a quick turn around to mix everything together. Let the pepper soften and release some juice into the bottom of the pan. At this point you should have been cooking for about a half hour. Don’t rush this dish. It’s far better when cooked long and slow. And besides, you’ve got a bottle of wine to drink with your friends while you cook it, haven’t you?
Chop the tomatoes and then wander off into the other room to do all the things that you’ve just remembered you have to do. Run back to the kitchen when the smells wafting along the corridor remind you 20 minutes later that you’ve left stuff on the hob.
Give everything a quick turn around and heave a sigh of relief that you’ve got a decent heavy-based pan and so all you’ve done is slightly scorch, rather than burn, everything. Quickly chuck in the tomatoes to add some liquid to the pan and scrape up the caramelized bits on the bottom. Now play it safe and let it simmer.
While the tomatoes cook down, rinse the salt off the capers and chop them finely. Like the celery, they’re there to add a certain je ne sais quoi rather than an intense hit of flavor. Sliver the flesh off the olives and rough chop them if you don’t want to deal with the stones in the finished dish. Leave them as they are if you don’t mind a little bit of oral gymnastics as you eat.
Check on the caponata in the pot. Move it back to a higher heat when you get bored of waiting for the tomatoes to reduce. Keep it bubbling away slowly until everything is well softened and beginning to meld together.
At this point, chuck in the capers and olives, along with the raisins, pine nuts and balsamic vinegar. Stir the ingredients around and leave them to simmer until you can no longer smell the sharpness of the vinegar and the liquid has been incorporated into the vegetables.
Turn off the heat and hunt in the cupboard for a container that’s suitable for leaving in the fridge. Scrape and pour the caponata into the container. Test a sneaky spoonful and roll your eyes in delight, knowing that it will be even better tomorrow at lunchtime with some arugula leaves and a bit of bresaola.
Cover and leave it to cool before putting it into the fridge. Finish your wine, safe in the knowledge of a job well done and plenty of good meals to come.