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.