I was first introduced to this traditional Sicilian dish in the busy kitchen of my future mother-in-law’s house on the flanks of Mount Etna, and was completely blown away by its unexpectedly rich combination of flavours. It was the perfect introduction to a wonderfully varied regional cuisine that I am still exploring with interest and gusto many years later.
My culinary revelation is shared by nearly everyone who visits Sicily, as Caponata is made throughout this glorious island. However, as with so many Sicilian dishes, although the basic ingredients are similar, there are many regional variants and the traditional Caponata of e.g. the Palermo region is quite different to that of Catania. This means that it is always worth trying wherever you are on the island, and I always make the effort to order some whenever I travel to a town or village that I’ve never visited before.
Caponata keeps extremely well because of the vinegar that is used in its preparation (it was traditionally made in industrial quantities in the summer months and stored in jars to be consumed through the winter) and, as its flavours build with time, it benefits from being made a day or two in advance. It is a perfect accompaniment to fish (in which case it is often served warm) and is also often served as an appetizer (at room temperature), but is so robust and flavoursome that it can also be served as a simple but delicious main meal all by itself. However you choose to serve it, make sure that you have plenty of warm crusty bread to hand!
Of all the variants I’ve tasted, my clear favourite remains that made by my wife’s family – although I may be biased! They live in the villages on the east face of Etna, and their recipe is a mixture of the variants from Messina and Catania.
The trick to perfecting this dish is to fry all the ingredients separately, and to make sure that each is as fresh and ripe as can be.
Ingredients (serves 4):
A lot of olive oil for frying
2 medium eggplants / aubergines
2 medium red peppers
4 medium potatoes
1 medium onion
50 grams of green olives (pitted)
A handful of unsalted capers
500 grams of passata
Salt and pepper to taste
A few bay leaves
1 glass of red wine vinegar
3 spoons of sugar
(1) Wash and dry the eggplants / aubergines. Cut them into pieces (c. 2 x 5 cm) and leave them to soak in salted water for an hour.
(2) Cut the peppers into similar sized pieces and fry until soft. Remove and place to one side.
(3) Chop the potatoes into 2 cm chunks and fry them until lightly browned. Remove and place to one side.
(4) Remove the eggplants / aubergines from the water when they’ve soaked for an hour and gently squeeze them (being careful not to damage them). Dry them with paper towels before frying them until they are nicely browned.
(5) Chop the onion and gently fry it, mixing in the capers and olives when it is nearly cooked. Cook for a short while, making sure that the capers and olives don’t burn, and add the passata. Season with salt and pepper, cover and cook for c.15 minutes.
(6) Add the eggplants / aubergines, peppers, potatoes and stir. Then add a few bay leaves, the red-wine vinegar and sugar, cover again and leave to cook over a low heat until the liquid reduces.
If you are serving the Caponata warm, transfer it to the serving dish(es) and sprinkle the roughly-torn basil leaves over the top. Otherwise, transfer it to a container and leave it to cool.
The variants of this dish are truly endless: many versions do not include potatoes, and several use celery instead. Octopus is commonly added in the area of Palermo, and pine-nuts are a regular feature (added in step 6). Many people like to use fresh diced tomatoes instead of passata, and it is also surprisingly common to use sunflower oil instead of olive oil, or a mixture (usually 50:50) of the two. Experiment to your heart’s content!