Caponata is a Sicilian tradition. It’s a cooked vegetable salad of eggplants, onions, celery, olives and capers, all in a delicious sweet and sour tomato base.
Caponata is rather similar to the French ratatouille, the Jewish Matbucha and the filling for the Turkish Imam Bayildi. Some call it vegetable stew, but I think it’s too dry to fall in that category, so a cooked salad it is, as far as I’m concerned.
Like any old, favourite recipe, caponata comes in various guises, depending on which part of Sicily (or Italy) you happen to be in, and who’s cooking for you! Apparently, there are over 30 recognised caponata recipes in Italy; yeah, I don’t really know what that means either!
A “proper” caponata must have aubergines (eggplants), celery, olives, onions and capers, as mentioned above. This mix is cooked in a light tomato base and flavoured and sweetened with vinegar and sugar.
The final dish is a wonderful burst of flavours, aroma and texture. Soft eggplants, still crunchy celery, meaty olives and the bite of the pine nuts (or almonds) are magnificently carried by the old flavours of the sauce.
History of Caponata
Naturally, there are a few stories explaining its origin. Apparently, it goes back to the 18th century and was once upon a time, cooked with fish. Those who couldn’t afford the luxury of fish, substituted it with the meaty eggplant, which is the identity it took on down the years.
There is some leeway to the vegetables and garnishes used in this recipe. Here are some you may want to try that are not uncommon additions:
- Artichokes – these were especially popular in the 19th century
- Courgettes – a common addition to caponata, probably because it seems like such an obvious partner to the eggplant
- Raisins – for added sweetness, as this is a sweet and sour dish
- Almonds – in many parts of Sicily, toasted almond flakes are more popular with caponata. Almonds have been grown in Sicily for centuries, thanks to the Arabs who first invaded the island in the 9th century.
A quick word about the vegetables. All the vegetables are meant to be roughly around the same size, so you can eat caponata easily, and top crostini with it. I like my eggplants slightly on the larger side because they soften when cooked and lose their size.
How to Serve Caponata
- serve it at room temperature or even cold
- make it a day early, as it tastes better the next day
- serve it as a side salad with fresh bread
- make canapés with it by topping crostini with it
- turn it into a pasta sauce by stirring it through cooked pasta
- it also makes a delicious pizza topping
Deep frying eggplants
Traditionally, the aubergines (eggplants) in caponata are deep fried first before being added to the rest of the ingredients. You know eggplants are sponge, don’t you?
There are things you can do to reduce how much oil they absorb, like salting them, soaking them in ice cold water and using fairly young aubergines. But the bottom line is they are still going to be loving that hot oil.
When I cook professionally, there’s no question, I deep fry the eggplants (sorry, I do rather use the two names interchangeably!). However, I’m just not a fan of deep frying at home, not unlike David Lebovitz.
Now don’t get me wrong, I quite like fried food when I’m dining out, gimme some of that fried chicken! But if I deep fry something at home, I just cannot bring myself to enjoy it. It’s totally psychological, I cannot get past the amount of oil used.
So, I shallow fry the aubergines with just 2-3 Tbsp of oil, and allow them to char and take on colour and flavour that way. A non stick pan works best for this.
But you fancy the deep fried route for your caponata? By all means, use about 1 cup of light olive oil or any vegetable oil for the purpose. Fry on medium heat for about 5 minutes, until they are a golden brown-ish.
Right then, shall we get our aprons on? Be sure to have lots of fresh bread for this exercise!
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- 1 large white onion
- 2 medium, long eggplants (aubergines, brinjals), about 600g/1.3 oz
- 1 large celery stalk
- 3 large vine tomatoes (or 200g/7 oz can of chopped tomatoes)
- 10 green olives in brine (about 60g/2 oz)
- 1 Tbsp salted capers (not in brine)
- 1 Tbsp sundried tomato paste (or regular tomato paste/purée)
- 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar (or any vinegar, but not all balsamic)
- 1 tsp white sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
- 1 small handful fresh basil leaves
- freshly ground black pepper
- 5 Tbsp EV olive oil
Let’s prep the vegetables
- Halve, then thinly slice the onion.
- Chop up the aubergines into 2-5cm/1″-2″ cubes. I like them on the bigger side, but make them small if you prefer.
- Chop the celery into 2.5cm/1″ slices.
- Halve the tomatoes, cut each half into 4, then halve each one again. So 16 pieces from each tomato.
- Halve the olives.
- Rinse the capers.
Let’s get cooking
- Heat 2 Tbsp of oil in a large non stick, fairly deep pan, on medium-high heat. It’s easier to stir and toss your food in a pan that has some depth.
- Fry the aubergine pieces, tossing them immediately so the oil isn’t absorbed by just a handful of them. Doesn’t matter if it is. Keep frying the aubergines until they take on a brown, slightly charred colour. Keep tossing or turning them to colour them all around. Do this for 5 minutes. Halfway through, drizzle 1 Tbsp of oil all over, and mix it all up. When done, tip the aubergines onto a plate and set aside.
- In the same pan, heat 2 Tbsp of oil on medium-low heat and fry the onions for 3 minutes, until softened.
- Add the celery and fry for 1 minute.
- Next add the tomatoes, olives, capers, tomato paste, red wine vinegar, sugar and salt, stir and cook for 1 minute.
- Tip the aubergines back in and stir well.
- Cover, lower heat to minimum and cook for 20 minutes, stirring a couple of times during this time.
- Turn the heat off, check seasoning, and add more salt if necessary. Stir in the pine nuts, tear the basil leaves up and add to the caponata, and finally finish with lots of freshly ground black pepper.
You can serve it now, if you like, but leaving it to cool is the more traditional way of serving it.
- Category: Appetiser
- Method: Easy
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: caponata, italian, sicilian, appetiser