Caponata di melanzane col cioccolato (Sicilian aubergine, celery, olive and bitter chocolate come stew come relish)

Aubergine caponata

Caponata is another hallmark of Sicilian cooking: a sweet and sour dish of deep fried aubergines and celery, simmered in tomato sauce, with sultanas, olives, capers, bitter chocolate  and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts or almonds: it id munificent and delicious, tasting exotic and complex.
These days it is mostly vegetarian, but in the past fish was not an unusual addition: tuna, small boiled octopus and bottarga (cured fish roe).
Caponata benefits from a long rest in the fridge (it is the typical made-ahead dish)  and it is generally served at room temperature, by itself or as a contorno to meat dishes. Caponata is one of the great dishes of the long, hot Italian Summer but it can be very successfully replicated also elsewhere, even where the ingredients available are not as glorious as their Italian counterparts, i.e. it is always good.

Aubergine caponata is the most popular but it is not the only one. On a recent trip to Sicily a very good cook told me that not only there are different versions of summer caponata (with courgettes, with peppers, with potatoes, all with or without aubergines),  but that there also winter versions of this dish, where artichokes, broccoli, escarole, fennel and artichokes are used. What never changes is the agrodolce (sour-sweet) character of the dish and its prodigality with ingredients.

Traditionally the ingredients are deep fried, but I prefer a much lighter approach, which, no doubt, many traditionalist would baulk at. The more I cook,  the more I am convinced that many traditional dishes benefit immensely from being lightened up and “re-thought”. I use very little oil in the actual cooking, so that the unmasked taste of the ingredients can shine. The celery is added raw after the caponata has cooked and cooled down: this allows it to retain its crisp, clean flavor, that well counterbalances the richness of sauce. Mint and celery add a refreshing aroma,  toasted pine-nuts lend a pleasant buttery crunchiness and a final drizzle of oil makes the whole dish pleasantly but not overwhelmingly unctuous.
I love my caponata best on toasted bread, drizzled with oil, atop some freshly cooked, lightly buttered cous cous, with a soft-boiled or hard-boiled egg and alongside pork sausages, roasted to glistening succulence, it is also excellent with grilled lamb chops. I can eat this every week and I often do.

 

Caponata di melanzane

1 kg aubergines, cut up in large cubes
2 tsp coarse sea salt
2 celery stick  (about 200 g)
1 onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 x 400 g canned plum tomatoes (or passata or cooked tomato sauce)
1 bay leaf
a pinch of cinnamon (I use less than a ¼ teaspoon) and a smaller pinch of ground clove (I use 1 clove, smashed with the back of a heavy knife and finely chopped)
a handful of meaty green olive, pitted and roughly chopped
30  g sultanas
2 tablespoons  capers, well rinsed
1 tablespoon  sugar
3 tablespoons vinegar
25 g dark chocolate (70%)
A small handful of mint chopped
few celery leaves chopped (optional)
a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts or almonds, lightly toasted in a dry pan (the almonds should be chopped coarsely)

Place the aubergines in a roomy bowl, sprinkle with the salt and leave them to degorge for few hours:  this was once believed to draw out the aubergines’ bitter juices, these days however aubergines are reliably sweet but salting them is still advised to improve their texture (and to make them absorb less oil, if deep fried).
String the celery, slice it thinly, place in cold water and refrigerate.

Rinse the aubergines, squeeze them gently but firmly between the palms of your hands and place them in a large pan. Cover and cook on medium until they are soft, stirring occasionally, if the pan looks it is drying up add some hot water by the tablespoon. When the aubergines are creamy tender, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and let them take a little color. Remove them.
To the same pan (no need to wash it), add the onion, the garlic and about four or five tablespoons of  water. Salt lightly, cover and cook, covered, until the onions are soft, raise the heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and let the onions take a little colour.
Add the canned tomatoes, the bay leaf, the sultanas, the cinnamon, the ground clove, the olives and the capers,. Let it simmer for 20 minutes, then add the sugar, the vinegar and the aubergines. Simmer for another 15 minutes, add the chocolate and still until it is melted. Add the mint and the celery.
Switch off and cool.

Drain the celery, pat it dry and add it to the caponata. Stir well and taste. Refrigerate and taste after a couple of hours: if it is not sour-sweet enough, add a little more sugar or vinegar. Let it bloom it in the fridge untill the following day.
When you want to serve it,  decant it into a large serving dish, drizzle over a couple of  tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkled with the pine nuts.

 

13 thoughts on “Caponata di melanzane col cioccolato (Sicilian aubergine, celery, olive and bitter chocolate come stew come relish)

  1. I’m intrigued by the chocolate. I’ve enjoyed caponata many times but never with that ingredient.

    I had been meaning to try the Neapolitan dish melanzane al cioccolato for years, and finally worked up the courage recently. It was… interesting. I think I need to give it another try, with a different recipe. (A bit less sugar, for one thing.)

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    1. Frank, what a coincidence: i m tight now assembling that dessert! I m using rosetta costantino ‘ s version, which is different. I will report

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    1. jeff, if u like chutneys.. do give caponata a try: there are scores of recipes: the more u research, the more interesting variations u find…. this is my current favourite version, but I like caponata in any shape or form and I would dare say that whatever u do, it is a foolproof dish… stefano

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  2. I’ve made my mother’s caponata for years. It’s similar to yours but, like David mentioned, has no spices or chocolate. I’ve seen other recipes in which eggplant is mixed with chocolate (especially in dessert). I’m intrigued by this idea and look forward to trying your version. BTW, I agree with you that some traditional recipes are improved when lightened up. I know a lot of cooks are reluctant to mess with tradition, but cuisine is always evolving, and why not? That’s what makes it so appealing. Cheers, D

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    1. ciao domenica
      yes! aubergine and chocolate: it is on my to do list: both the Campania dish and a cake I have just seen from Calabrian born chef Francesco Mazzei….I can see why it works.

      on modernizing recipes: I dislike gastronomic talebans, those who say NO, NO, NO… of course there are rules and fixed point, but then .. it is really jazz playing… improvising, along known routes,… otherwise the whole thing becomes a sterile, academic exercise (interesting, but something else). in Italy, food is a live, ever changing, adapting network of common, shared focal points – this allows lots of freedom (not to mention that when people start complaining about messing up with Tradition, I generally ask: whose tradition are u talking about? was it codified by a man or a woman? by a cook or by a borghese, like Artusi… ecc.. ecc…)(by the way: on Marcella Hazan’s Facebook there is an old post, written by Victor, about the concepts of traditional and authentic, worth reading) ciao, st

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      1. Thanks for the tip on Victor’s post. I’ll check it out. It’s funny; it seems to me that many people (non-Italians) these days consider Italian cooking/recipes static; i.e. there is the traditional recipe and everything else is wrong. But that hasn’t been my experience. Yes, Italian cooks are opinionated and everyone has the “right” way of doing things, but one cook’s way is always a little different from the next, even with traditional recipes. Like you, I also find the cooking in Italy alive and ever-changing.

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        1. food evolves all the time (it is enough to check a fairly recent text like Artusi or the first edition of Il Talismano della felicità, to see how things have changed), so to pretend that recipes are fixed is laughable. ask ten people and u will get 10 dirrerent versions of caponata, each one “authentic”

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  3. Stefano – your caponata is so very different from that of my family who came to the U.S. from Sicily in the 1890s. The basics are the same – aubergine, onion, celery, and tomatoes – but I have never heard of the use of exotic spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and chocolate. I definitely need to try yours soon – I am absolutely fascinated by the use of the chocolate, especially.

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend! Ours will start with a classics spaghetti alla Carbonara, a salad, and some nice fresh fruit. A presto!

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    1. David, u r Sicilian! 🙂 + u must get Profumi di Sicilia by Giuseppe Coria: it is the bible of Sicilian cooking: I do not have it unfortunately (long story), but it really is something… it will be re-published in 2018. also check the first book by Anna Tasca Lanza, Heart of Sicily (do not bother with the book published by her daughter) + of course, all the books by Taylor-Simeti.

      caponata: from what I have read and been told, it truly is one of those dishes that changes withe every family ecc… after trying many versions of caponata, now I am happy with this one, enriched by chocolate, which I read about in Anna Del Conte, whilst the use of spices come from Anna Gosetti della Salda. Chocolate is sometimes used in Italian savory dishes to round their flavor: in some beef stews (beef and rabbit) and in agrodolci (sour sweet dishes). It is barely noticeable, but still u can taste that there is something extra.

      carbonara: ah… ages, since i made it!.. and now guanciale is not even such a hard call as it was yrs ago – I should make amend.

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