When we were in Sicily a couple of weeks ago, I think I ate my weight in caponata. Every place has their own twist, but the base is always the same…eggplant, capers, and celery with a tomato based sweet and sour dressing. Some will add green olives or roasted red peppers and even raisins or toasted chopped almonds . Like ratatouille, its Provencal cousin, caponata is mostly eaten at room temperature and usually served with some good, crusty bread. When Sicilians talk about caponata, they can become rapturous. “He who has not eaten a capontina (a variation of caponata) of eggplant has never reached the antechamber of the terrestrial paradise,” as author Gretna Falzone writes. I could not agree more!
While the Arabs first introduced eggplant to the Sicilians in the 9th century when the Saracens, Arab warriors, invaded and occupied the island for 200 years, most experts agree that what we know as caponata today is Spanish in origin. The Sicilian food authority Pino Correnti thinks that the dish’s name is in fact derived from the Catalan word caponada, meaning a similar kind of eggplant relish.
This version of caponata is a recipe that I took from a beautiful cookbook called Sicilia, The Cooking of Casa Planeta written by Elisia Menduni. I picked up this cookbook while we were staying at La Foresteria Planeta near Menfi (http://www.planetaestate.it). This recipe is from the repertoire of Casa Planeta. The Planetas are a family with deep roots in Sicily that have Spanish origins and have played an enduring role in Siciliy’s agriculture for more than 18 generations. They have vineyards that stretch from the northern coast of Sicily near Messina to the beautiful vineyards on the southern coast near Menfi where we had the wonderful opportunity to stay. This hotel, which was opened in 2009, have rooms that are immersed in the vineyards.
Our room opened up onto the estate’s expansive herb gardens that their kitchen uses in their dishes. It was truly magical and the scents of mint, rosemary, and lavender that perfumed our room was intoxicating.
This caponata recipe that I ran across in the beautiful cookbook I acquired is super simple and I love that you can keep it in the fridge for up to a week; although in my house I’m lucky if it lasts two days. It is a great make ahead dish as well because the longer it has time to sit, the better the it is. The only change that I made to the recipe is that I omitted the green olives that it called for. You can certainly add them, but I prefer my caponata without.
To begin with, wash the eggplant and cut it into bite size pieces (about ¾ of an inch or 1 ½ cm). Sprinkle with sea salt and place in a colander for about 30 minutes or so. Rinse well and dry. Then fry in a generous amount of olive oil.
For the celery, clean and remove any to strings with a vegetable peeler and chop. Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the celery for about 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Next, in a large saute pan, heat up some olive oil and soften up the white onion over low heat until just softened making sure not to let it brown. Add the chopped celery and rinsed caper and a pinch of pepper and cook for another couple of minutes.
Next add the tomato paste and stir. Increase the heat to medium and in the middle of the pan, make a well a pour the sugar in. Let it dissolve, then add the vinegar and stir, cooking for a couple of minutes.
Next pour the mixture over the eggplant and fold it together with the eggplant until just combined. Let cool before serving or putting it in the fridge.
To serve, chop up a small bunch of mint and chop up some toasted almonds and sprinkle as a garnish on top.
I like to serve it as a starter on bruschetta or with crusty bread. It is a great accompaniment with grilled meat or fish…even on pasta. So yummy and versatile. I love it!
- 4 lbs, 4 oz (2 Kilo) eggplant, chopped into bite size pieces
- 1 medium onion, chopped into a smallish dice
- 5½ oz (150 grams) tomato paste
- 1½ cups (200 grams) celery; chopped into half moons (about 3 or 4 ribs)
- ½ cup (100 grams) large salted capers; rinsed and drained
- ¼ cup (50 ml) red wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup (50 grams) toasted almonds; roughly chopped
- ¼ cup (50 grams) granulated white sugar
- a bunch of mint leaves (for garnish on top)
- 1 to 2 Tablespoons (10 ml) extra virgin olive oil
- olive oil for frying
- sea salt
- salt and pepper to taste
- Wash the eggplants and cut them into a smallish bite-size dice (1/2 to ¾ inch cubes)
- Sprinkle the chopped eggplant pieces with sea salt and place them in a colander for about 30 minutes.
- Rinse the eggplant prices and dry thoroughly with a clean kitchen towel (make sure you don't skip this step otherwise your caponata will too salty).
- Fry the eggplant pieces in a generous amount of oil. You can do this in a couple of batches if your pan is not large enough.
- Cook the eggplant pieces until they are softened and golden brown.
- When the eggplant is cook, put it in a large mixing bowl and set aside.
- Wash the celery stalks and remove any tough strings with a vegetable peeler and chop into half moons.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the celery for 3 to 4 minutes. Pour in a colander and drain.
- Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large pan and add the chopped onion. Let the onion soften over low heat making sure it does not brown. Add the blanched, chopped celery, the capers, and a pinch of pepper and cook for about 2 minutes.
- Add the tomato past and stir to combine completely.
- Increase the heat to medium and in the middle of the pan, make a well and pour in the sugar.
- Let the sugar dissolve, then add the vinegar and stir to combine. Cook for about 2 minutes.
- Pour the tomato paste dressing over the eggplant.
- With a spatula, very carefully (without breaking the eggplant), fold the dressing and eggplant together until just combined. Do not over mix.
- Set aside and let cool to room temperature.
- You can either serve immediately once it has arrived to room temperature or put in the fridge and use later.
- To serve, roughly chop up a bunch of mint and toasted almonds. Sprinkle over the caponata and serve.