This is a beautiful dish with Roman origins, from Sicily. There is something beautifully different about some of the taste combinations you’ll find in Sicily, especially the tendency to combine sweet and sour – a legacy, they say, of ancient Roman days when sweet dates were used instead of tomatoes and sugar.
La caponata, one of the most famous Sicilian dishes, is a good example. It’s a cousin to the ratatouille of Provence. Caponata features eggplant, with celery, tomato and onions along with capers and olives. These are typical Southern Italian flavours. And it has that sweet-and-sour touch that perfectly balances out the flavours. It layers different flavours one upon the other, and, if you care to cook it for 30 mins or more, the flavours are deep and glorious and the consistency almost jam-like.
Serve Caponata on its own, hot or room temperature, on a Sunday afternoon (with a glass of wine, of course), or in the traditional manner as an antipasto. Caponata can be served on bruschetta, with flatbread or with salad leaves, and it’s also perfect as a side dish or even as a relish.
Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray note warily in the River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook that “there are as many ways to make caponata as there are cooks in Sicily”, a fact confirmed by Giorgio Locatelli, who claims that “in every house and in every restaurant you will find a different version and opinion.”
There are many versions of Caponata on Sicily – apparently 37 official versions, depending on local customs. The differences lie in the addition of different vegetables, for example potatoes, bell peppers, zucchini.
The secret to a good caponata is the quality of the eggplant, tomatoes and vinegar.
This is a recipe from our first blog which ran from 1995 – 2006. You can browse all of the vegetarian recipes from that blog in our Retro Recipes series.
1 medium eggplant
oil for frying
0.33 cup virgin, cold pressed olive oil
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 – 3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 red onion, thinly sliced, or use white onion
1 clove garlic
2 tspn pine nuts or flaked almonds
1 Tblspn capers, drained
5 black olives, stoned and halved
1 Tblspn brown sugar
2 Tblspns best quality white wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
sea salt to taste
basil, parsley or mint
Cut the eggplant into 2cm cubes, sprinkle with salt and leave to drain for 30 minutes. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and deep fry the cubes in batches until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper towel.
Return all the cooked eggplant to the pan with the celery, onion, garlic and tomatoes. Simmer for 15 – 20 minutes and then add the pine-nuts, capers and olives. Stir the sugar into the vinegar until dissolved and add to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and simmer very gently for 15 minutes more. Taste, and add a little more vinegar if necessary. Cool and leave for flavours to develop fully.
Stir through a little chopped basil, parsley or mint if desired.
Serve with Italian bread.
recipe notes and alternatives
For a “fresher” look, cook for 5 mins only each time. The ingredients will retain texture but the dish will not have as deep flavours. The longer the cooking, the deeper the flavours.
A clove of garlic is common but can be omitted.
Add a Tblspn sultanas with the tomatoes. Reduce the sugar a little.
Use canned tomatoes if fresh tomatoes are not at peak quality.
Dried oregano and chopped parsley are a nice addition.
Add a spoonful of harissa as it cooks. Yum!