If there is one recipe which could be chosen to represent the sicilian soul in the kitchen, it would be the caponata. It has the hallmarks of a national dish: it gathers the best local ingredients, it is done by each family with endless variations and it was even written into Sicily’s best loved historic novel “Il Gattopardo” by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It is Sicily’s equivalent to ratatouille or chouchouka. A great tasting sweet and sour dish, served chilled as starters with some bread.
The version my son and I first tasted in the Ballaro market in Palermo was succulent and thick with tomato sauce even though tomatoes had not yet been introduced when caponata was first invented in the ninth century. At the Melograno restaurant in Taormina, chef Massimo taught us his family version (sans tomato) and I liked them both but here in mine I did put a bit of Passata… In Palermo, they sometimes add swordfish to it, which we tasted once over pasta and in Modica they sprinkle dark chocolate over it, which we did not – even though it was Easter…
- White onion, 1
- Aubergine, one
- Celery heart, a few stalks
- Capers, 25g or two large spoonful
- Red pepper, one large
- Black olives, a handful
- Chopped parsley or basil to serve
- White wine vinegar, 2 tbsp
- Pine nuts, a sprinkling
- Raisins, 50g
- Olive oil to taste
Massimo’s version had sugar but I can’t bring myself to use sugar in a savoury and sooo healthy dish- so I figured that the tomato sauce would provide enough sweetness to balance the sourness of the vinegar and it did!
Coming back from our tour of Sicily with a wealth of flavours, recipes and memories of delicious meals, it was tricky to choose what to start with here on the blog but caponata seems the obvious choice . It is a real family dish, it is delicious – that could have been enough- but it is also foolproof and very easy to customise. The preparation is not quick though because each vegetable needs to be fried separately – but it is worth the effort and once done, it keeps well for a few days.
Wash and chop the vegetables– trying to cube it all roughly in similar format.
Sprinkle the aubergine cubes with fine salt, rub it all in with your hands, then soak in a bowl of water while you fry the rest. When you will need to add the aubergines, you will rinse them and squeeze them in your hands to release all their water and hopefully some of their bitterness.
Fry each batch of vegetable separately until tender and then reserve. Fry the red pepper last because the oil will then get very hot and peppery…
When all that is done, chop the onion and celery very finely and then fry in a new pan until they turn brown. Then had the capers, pine nuts and heat it up.
Add the vinegar and let it steam off.
Sprinkle a little salt, add a few glugs of Passata or some tomato paste with a bit of water. Then put back all of the fried vegetable and let it reduce further on medium heat. Add a little water or oil, or both, if necessary.
Leave the caponata to cool aside and sprinkle with parsley just before serving.
Note: There are plenty of cookery schools in Sicily and restaurants willing to provide cooking lessons. It is well worth it but do shop around. I booked mine through Best of Sicily.