Sicilian caponata di melanzane is very famous, however it is not the only one. In fact, on a trip to Sicily and after reading the seminal “Profumi di Sicilia” by Giuseppe Coria, I learnt that “caponata” is only a generic term used to describe a dish made of assorted cooked vegetables finished off with a sour sweet condiment, either sugar or honey and vinegar.
In Ragusa they have, for instance, an amazing sounding Christmas Eve caponata made with winter vegetables: artichokes, parsnips, fennels cauliflowesr and chicory dressed with a souce made with toasted almonds, breadcrumbs, anchovies, honey, vinegar and bitter chocolate, called salsa di San Bernardo, Saint Bernard sauce. In another version I have found, from the town of Polizzi Generosa, borage, spinach, chicory, fennels cardoons, artichokes and celery are separately blanched and then ripassati in padella, sautéed in oil and garlic. They are then dressed with few drops of vinegar and served on a platter, with anchovy fillets, capers, toasted breadcrumbs and slices of lemons on top. There is then another sumptuos version (for winter, again) where blanched celery is lightly fried with onions, handfuls of raisins, sultanas, toasted almonds, capers and green olives – on a large white platter and pomegranate seeds scattered over, this makes for a stunning party piece.
The following is a caponata di zucca, a butternut (or crown) caponata – an excellent Autumn and Winter dish, to be eaten at room temperature, the following day ideally. In my caponata, celery (a typical ingredient of this dish) is present only in the form of chopped leaves at the end, to counterbalance the overall sweetness, alongside the briny olives and the agrodolce. This makes a lovely antipasto or an accompaniment to some pigeon breast gently fried in butter, for instance.
Caponata di zucca (Sicilian sour-sweet butternut squash caponata)
Peel, core and thickly slice one butternut (1.5 kg approx). Brush the slices with a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast them in a hot oven, until tender and bronze coloured, turning them once. Let them cool and cut them in pieces. You could also fry them, of course: this would be what most traditional Sicilian cooks would do.
Pour a generous glug of oil in a large frying pan and when it is hot add a couple of thinly sliced onions, lightly salting them too. When they are floppy and golden, add the butternut pieces and stir well, at a lively heat.
Add now a generous handful of green olives, a little less of sultanas and a couple of tablespoons of capers (well rinsed). To my shame I used pitted olives: be smarter and use whole ones, smashing them with the palm of your hand to pit them: they are better and do look better.
Add a little agrodolce, made by mixing some vinegar and honey: how much and how sweet it is really up to you. I used cider vinegar and a mild honey, mixed well. Add this condiment by the tablespoon and keep tasting the dish over the next ten minutes, until you have reached the sour and sweet balance that is right for you. Stir and simmer for about 20 minutes, on a low heat, covered. Cool and refrigerate.
Add some chopped celery leaves and some toasted pumpkin seeds, just before serving
All caponatas are much better after a good rest in the fridge: the ingredients get to know each other, any initial harshness subsides, the general tone mellows.
Almonds, toasted and slivered could be added too, as well as some fried breadcrumbs.